Q&A With Congressman Andy Harris

BERLIN — Congressman Andy Harris has been one of the few Republicans to have a firm hold on his political seat in the traditionally blue state of Maryland for a number of years. Harris was re-elected to his seat representing the first congressional district in Maryland by an overwhelming majority and is confident that he will retain his seat in November.

Yet, Harris has campaigned far less than many of his opponents, despite facing criticism on the campaign trail about his voting record on many issues, including a few that pertain specifically to the Eastern Shore.

Harris spoke to The Dispatch by phone from his office in Washington DC about what he calls an “interesting” election cycle, the ideological issues facing and in some cases, dividing, Marylanders, and explained how his wife’s sudden passing in 2014 changed his views on politics as an occupation.

Q: Many people who are running for office this cycle have seemingly been campaigning for years. In recent months, you came out publically and said you were less concerned about campaigning and more concerned about lowering taxes and fighting regulations that strangle our economy. In 2014, you won this seat with almost 70 percent of the vote, leading some political analysts to speculate that you have almost a stranglehold on the first congressional district in the state of Maryland. Are you confident heading into the primary and the general this cycle that you will continue to dominate the first district?

A: Well, I think this is, of course, an interesting election year, and I think people want to know whether or not the people they elect are going to be responsive to their needs. I think my record in Congress has shown that I am responsive to the needs of the first district, whether it’s dredging in Ocean City, taking care of the poultry industry on the lower shore, or, in general, the regulatory environment to help create jobs throughout Maryland and keep the economy going.

Q: Let’s talk about the poultry industry for a moment. There has been a longstanding conversation and debate about finding the balance between ensuring that there aren’t too many regulations and still trying to ensure that there are rules on the books that hold everyone accountable and the Bay will be clean and we don’t damage our natural resources. There have been a number of initiatives in recent years, such as the Phosphorous Management Tool, and the Poultry Litter Management Act. Talk about your thoughts on this ongoing conversation and in your opinion, are we getting that balance right?

A: I think we are getting it better than we did a few years ago when not all the stakeholders were involved. I think that has a lot to do with Governor Larry Hogan. He made certain all the stakeholders are involved in things like the PMT. He put a pause on it for awhile until he got everyone involved and they agreed to a plan that I think in the end will benefit all of the parties and the Chesapeake Bay.

Q: You mentioned Governor Larry Hogan. You have long been one of few Republicans holding a seat, as 7 of the 8 Congressional districts in Maryland are held by Democrats. Governor Hogan, of course, as a Republican has been sparring quite publically with House and Senate Democrats this session in Annapolis. Talk about his efforts since he’s been elected in Maryland, and what’s that has looked like to you as a Republican.

A: Look, there’s a reason why his approval ratings are sky-high, statewide, including places like Baltimore City where normally they wouldn’t be. That’s because Larry Hogan presents a very commonsense approach to getting our economy right. I think people appreciate it. They are tired of fee increases. They appreciate the lowering of the Bay Bridge toll. They appreciated the tax decreases that he is trying to put into effect. That’s why he’s bringing the Republican principles forward that he has of less restrictive government and allowing the economy to prosper and lowering taxes and fees. There’s a receptive audience in Maryland for that right now.

Q: One of your potential opponents in the general election for your seat is former Salisbury mayor Jim Ireton. Many people are watching this potential matchup because the two of you couldn’t be more different, politically speaking, from an ideological standpoint. You are very much to the right and he is a progressive liberal.  Yet, both of you are well known for not being one to back away from controversial comments or public criticism of your detractors. If it gets to that point, do you see Ireton as a formidable foe?

A: The first congressional district is not a liberal district. It was drawn by the Democrats in the legislature to be a conservative district, and I think my philosophy, more so, matches the district.

Q: Ireton came out swinging during the early days of his campaign, criticizing you for your votes against the $9.7 billion in federal aid for the town of Crisfield after Superstrom Sandy and your stances on the Affordable Care Act. Let’s talk about the decision to vote against aid to the people of Crisfield. Why did you decide federal aid politically speaking and do you think that decision sent the wrong message to those folks who you are now asking to vote for you again?

A: No, people understand that I support Crisfield, and I support the Eastern Shore. I support flood insurance, I support emergency aid. That was not a Superstorm Sandy bill. It has tens of millions of dollars for aid other than Superstorm Sandy. It included a million dollars for a highway in the Northern Mariana Islands, which is in the Pacific Ocean. We have got to stop spending like that in Washington if we are ever going to end our deficit. That bill should have been targeted specifically to Superstorm Sandy, and if it had been specifically targeted like that, I would have voted for it.

Q: Do you think there is a misconception about why you voted against that bill and do you think that hurts you at all in regards to people voting for you now?

A: People in the first district know that I support the first district and all the various parts of the district, and it varies because we have portions of 12 counties from Maryland in the district. I go to bat for every single part of that district. They know that if I voted against that bill, it was because there were parts of that bill that were actually harmful to our district. That is, the runaway spending to build a one million dollar highway in the Northern Marina Island in a Superstorm Sandy bill. I mean, that was another ocean.

Q: Coastal storms are a huge threat to life here on the shore. Ocean City has been very lucky in recent years to avoid direct hits from devastating storms. Talk about the merits of beach replenishment and talk directly to people who may wonder if you will protect Ocean City and other coastal communities with your support in the future from storms.

A: They don’t have to wonder. They just have to look what my response was after the last storm that devastated some of the dunes in Ocean City. I immediately went to the Army Corps of Engineers and convinced them to move ahead with the schedule for dune replenishment. Behind the scenes, I sit on the appropriations committee, and because of that, I have access above and beyond what many other congressmen do. We got that done promptly.

Q: A few months ago, when the last cycle for health care enrollment ended, I was really interested to find out that here on the Eastern Shore, the growth rate for people getting enrolled in the Affordable Care Act is amongst the highest in the state. Worcester County was up 60% from a year ago, and Wicomico and Somerset Counties were up more than a 100%.  I know you were vehemently opposed to the Affordable Care Act as a politician, but as a physician, I’m curious if you look at the fact that thousands of people on the Eastern Shore now have health care, do you see that as a bad thing?

A: They may have health insurance, but whether or not they have health care is another thing. Because it has driven up the costs of the policies, and because the policies under the Affordable Care Act have driven up deductibles; if you don’t get a subsidy, you probably are receiving less health care now than you did before. There are ways to expand access to insurance, like Medicaid expansion for instance, that didn’t have to involve going after all the people who had insurance on their own, and all the employers and raising those costs tremendously. When you raise the cost of employers to provide insurance, what happens are some employers stop providing insurance. Then, you have to go to the exchanges, which are expensive plans unless you get the subsidy. Look, the goal was noble. To increase coverage is noble, but the way it was done, as a provider, I will tell you, and you know you don’t have to go far to find people who can’t find a provider of their own Medicaid. To find people if there are seniors on Medicare who can’t find a provider to take care of them because of the results of the Affordable Care Act.

Q: You and I have talked before about the 2nd amendment and conversations about guns and gun control in the state of Maryland. Obviously, many folks on the Eastern Shore are proponents of guns and gun rights as it is part of the culture here. Yet, every time we’ve talked about this issue, you point less toward gun control and more towards the need for mental health initiatives. So, as a physician, what more can be done to ramp up the conversation and the attention about mental health research and treatment rather than just continue the stalemated arguments about the merits of gun ownership and the merits of increased gun control?

A: Well, I hope we get there because the rhetoric coming out of the Presidential race implies that if the Democrats are elected, we are going to have significant increases in gun control in the US, which I don’t think will prevent the violence. First, we have to go after the people who would commit the gun violence, and that’s predominantly a mental health issue. Dr. (Tim) Murphy, the representative from Pennsylvania, has a mental health care reform act, which I am a co-sponsor of. A lot of the funding for the mental health comes from the federal government in a very disorganized fashion. It reforms the mental healthcare reform system, it expands access for people to get into the system who needs it. I hope it’s something that the Congress can pass this year, but unfortunately, it’s a Republican bill and it’s meeting resistance in the Senate especially, as it’s part of a filibuster. But, I hope we can get together and at least agree that we need to treat people with mental illness more seriously than we do right now.

Q: We’ve mentioned the Presidential race a few times in this conversation. Governor Larry Hogan was pressured throughout this session in Annapolis to take a stance on Donald Trump and to publically comment on who he is supporting in this election. Just recently, he came out and said that he didn’t care for any of the candidates on either side. Have you come out publically and backed anyone. Do you see any of the people on those podiums on either side being a viable President?

A: Well, I supported Ben Carson. I campaigned with him, I endorsed him, and I’m sorry that he dropped out of the race. I still think he would have made a fine President of the United States. Right now, I’m just waiting to see what the Republican primary voters decide, and I’m not backing anyone at this point in time after Dr. Carson dropped out.

Q: Many Republicans I speak to here on the shore have complained about the quality of the candidates. They say they are not completely enamored with any of the candidates. You seem to have all the qualities that conservatives often gravitate towards. So, as you watch all of this unfold this cycle, does it make you aspire to a higher office at some point in your career?

A: (Laughs) No, I enjoy taking care of the first congressional district. It’s a beautiful district. It’s got industries that need help in Washington, and I’m happy to help them and doing what I’m doing in the first district, and I have no aspiration for higher office.

Q: Lastly and somewhat personally, I know the sudden passing of your wife in 2014 must have been incredibly hard for you and your family. I wonder if her loss has changed your perspective on the often cantankerous world of politics that you work in every day. Has what you’ve gone through since her death, changed the way you look at Washington or the work that you do?

A: It changes my perspective on what we need to do in this country. We really do need to restore America’s greatness. We need to restore what we all love about this country: the American dream.

(Editor’s Note: To listen to the entire conversation, click over to www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts)

About The Author: Bryan Russo

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Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.