The Magazine

Miss America vs. Mr. Incumbent

Not your ordinary House primary race

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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After she was named Miss America, however, Harold decided to add abstinence to her platform for the year of her reign. She didn’t abandon “youth violence” but rather included it, along with abstinence, in a broad appeal to kids to respect themselves by standing up to bullies and avoiding sex, drugs, and alcohol. This was, as a matter of both intellectual coherence and moral sense, a significant improvement on the pure “youth violence” platform she’d been handed. The Miss America organization did not like it one bit.

The organization pushed back hard and told Harold to keep quiet—especially about sex. The disagreement made national headlines and culminated in a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, where the newly crowned Harold told reporters, “I will not be bullied. I’ve gone through enough adversity in my life to stand up for what I believe in.” Miss America stared down the pageant and won.

Harold was already interested in politics. During a Miss America appearance at East St. Louis High School, students asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She told them, “My ultimate goal is that I want to be the first black female president of the United States.” While still an undergraduate at Illinois, she volunteered for conservative Patrick O’Malley’s doomed 2002 Illinois gubernatorial campaign. She also volunteered with the Republican National Committee in an effort to promote conservative economic principles in African-American communities. After graduating from law school, she joined a Chicago firm where her practice has specialized in health care law and religious freedom. Both have led her to be increasingly critical of President Obama’s policies, though not the man himself.

In fact, she goes out of her way—far out of it—not to criticize Obama. For instance, in June she told Politico:

[Obama] and I both have an optimistic view of the country and people’s capacity to effect change, and I think that we do share that in common. I know that he has a background in organizing communities to affect issues, and I think that’s a very empowering way to organize people. And I think that sense of optimism is something people hopefully find appealing. And I also admire the fact that he seems like he’s a great father and I’ve found it heartwarming to see pictures of his daughters growing up. They’re great representatives of their generation.

This sort of talk has been interpreted by some in the Illinois Republican establishment as suggesting that Harold isn’t, to put it more nicely than Jim Allen did, a genuine conservative.  

Is she a squish? Possibly, but probably not. Differentiating between Obama and his policies is smart politics—Harold is running in Illinois, after all, a heavily Democratic state where Obama is a favorite son. Yet while Harold tries to resist easy classification, her ideological markers are highly suggestive of a conservative worldview. There’s the abstinence, of course. She’s fiercely pro-life. She favors concealed-carry gun laws. And she’s on the board of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the program founded by Chuck Colson.

This last is telling. The most interesting part of Harold’s legal practice has been her work defending faith-based entities. In one case, for example, she represented a retirement community affiliated with a religious group. The organization featured a cross on its logo and used a Bible verse in its mission statement—which attracted a lawsuit from an advocacy group contending that this amounted to discrimination. Describing this work, Harold says, “It’s a passion of mine.”

Looking across the broader national landscape, Harold sees ample reason to be concerned about religious freedom. “We’re starting to see ways in which our constitutional protections are being encroached upon,” she says. “We all are less free when any group isn’t afforded their constitutional protections.”

And not just less free, but less well off. Harold says that her time with Prison Fellowship Ministries has deepened her appreciation for the good religious organizations can do. “I’ve seen firsthand the need for there to be a space in public life for religious groups to be able to offer service to their fellow man,” she says. When government seeks to quarantine religious organizations, moving from freedom of religion to “freedom of worship” (to use the formulation President Obama favors), “it’s far too limiting in terms of the good they can do for the public, and it’s far too restrictive in terms of the protections which are afforded religious groups by the Constitution. We give something up when we say that certain voices aren’t welcome in the public square.”

Harold says she intends to make religious freedom an issue in her campaign. This is fitting at a time when the HHS mandate, the Hobby Lobby case, and the torrent of litigation about to be unleashed by the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decisions appear likely to make religious freedom a central front in the culture war. 

None of this has made much of an impression on the Republican establishment. As a senior adviser to the local party told me with some exasperation, “It doesn’t make any sense that she’s running. She has no complaints about Davis. No one has any complaints about Davis—he’s a good man and he’s done a good job for the district. All this does is hurt the Republican party in Illinois.”

Yet the twin rationales for Harold’s campaign are fairly obvious: The 2012 results suggest that Republicans might be able to field a stronger general election candidate for a tough 2014 race. And more important, whatever Davis’s merits, Republican primary voters never got a say in choosing him. 

When you add it all up, the real mystery about Harold isn’t why she’s challenging Davis. It’s why the Illinois GOP didn’t find a way to harness her talents and ambition when she came home five years ago.

In 2002, a friend of mine got a surprise call asking if she would sit as a judge for Miss America. Like any sensible person, she said yes. When she told me the news, I gave her a copy of Goldman’s book, and after the pageant—sorry, scholarship contest—she confirmed his reporting. She said that the minute Harold finished her extended interview, it was clear to the panel that she would be Miss America. She was that good.

Shortly thereafter, when Harold came to Washington in the middle of the abstinence platform dust-up, my friend had a small party for her. It was informal, maybe two dozen people at a home by the D.C. reservoir. Harold was there, with her sash, her tiara, and her elderly minder from the organization. (During her tenure, Miss America has a chaperone with her every waking minute. That’s probably why the only scandals the pageant has ever endured came from indiscretions committed before the competition.)

My wife and I spent a little time talking with Harold. We hadn’t met a Miss America before, and she wasn’t what I expected. For starters, she wasn’t beautiful. This isn’t meant as a slight—Harold was then and is today a very attractive woman by any standard. But I was expecting Helen of Troy, or at least Heidi Klum. And she wasn’t that. Also, she was short. 

Those were my immediate impressions. It took less than a minute to appreciate how engaging she was. Even at 23, she was uncannily personable; all the more so because her manner seemed effortless and natural. After a few minutes, it became clear that she was also very smart. On this score I had been expecting Jane Pauley; Harold reminded me more of Bill Clinton—of the package of attributes that made the young Bill Clinton such a promising politician.

In the car on the way home, my wife and I compared notes. We were both convinced that Harold was destined for politics and would be a formidable contender once she arrived there.

Other formidable politicians have started out by displeasing their party establishments. In 2000, Barack Obama mounted a primary challenge to Bobby Rush, a four-term congressman. Obama got thrashed in an ugly race. In 1995, Chris Christie was a sitting freeholder (the New Jersey term for county commissioner) when he challenged Anthony Bucco, the incumbent Republican, for a seat in the state’s general assembly. Christie lost, and in retaliation the county Republican party recruited a candidate to challenge him in the primary when he ran for reelection to his freeholder seat. He lost that, too.

Today, the national Democratic party belongs to Obama just as surely as the New Jersey Republican party belongs to Christie. Erika Harold understands that while political establishments can be powerful, they are neither irresistible nor immortal.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.

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