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Sen. Nikiya Harris: ‘It’s Time for New Voices’

Milwaukee’s newest state senator on state politics, the county power grab and local control

May. 14, 2013
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The first few months in office are never easy for a young, energetic, idealistic state legislator who’s a member of the minority party and shut out of the majority party’s decision-making process. But despite a “reality check” or two from her colleagues in recent weeks, first-term state Sen. Nikiya Harris is optimistic about working on bills to improve state and local job-creation efforts, public education and transit. And the Democrat is also learning how to get things done by finding common ground with one of the most outspoken, conservative members of the Republican majority—Sen. Glenn Grothman of West Bend.

Harris spoke to the Shepherd from the district office she shares in the Third Ward with Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, who backed her in last year’s hard-fought campaign. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.


Shepherd: So, how are your first few months in the Senate?

Harris: If you had asked me last week how I really felt you probably would have gotten a different answer. [laughs] Let me just say this. First of all, I am extremely honored and blessed to be serving and I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world. However, I have seen some things that have been something like a reality check that have reminded me that I am in a different world as far as business goes. Sometimes not everything goes the way that I would like to see it go. With that said, I am taking it all in stride and taking one day at a time, learning my craft. Each day can bring a different issue.

Shepherd: What’s the reality check that you got?

Harris: Just the fact that sometimes even in your own house or caucus you can have different views on things. It’s not to say that we are not all there for the same issues but it can be a little—you can be taken aback a little at times. We are there for the same goal but sometimes we just reach that goal a little differently.

Shepherd: Is there something specific that is causing disagreement?

Harris: Just random bills that have come up that you would think people would be on the same page about but they’re not.

Shepherd: You’re in the minority party and it’s your first year. Who have you reached out to for help in getting things done?

Harris: Ironically I’ve found reaching out to Glenn Grothman has been helpful. He extended his hand first really early on by showing me courtesy and being respectful of our differences and just showing himself to be friendly. So it was almost a natural progression for me to connect with him when I would try to find a Republican that I could work with. Even though I know that we are on two opposite sides of the spectrum. [laughs] However, I have found him to be someone who from time to time I feel I could work with, for example, on the residency issue. He believes it’s a local control issue. He sees the impact that it’s going to have on Milwaukee and he’s vocalized that. I think that’s been refreshing to see.

Shepherd: You won an intense primary and the candidates had their allies among Milwaukee legislators. You had strong links to Chris Larson, now the minority leader. And Sen. Lena Taylor was supporting Beth Coggs, whom you defeated. Is there still some residual tension?

Harris: I believe that’s working its way out. I entered the Senate without having any hard feelings against anyone who had decided to support one candidate over the other. I think that’s the natural thing that happens in campaigns, that you should choose a side and be in it and get in it and support your candidate wholeheartedly. Then after the race is over we should be able to drop that race and move forward because now we have to work together. Just this past week Lena and I sat down and talked about ways that we can work together and move forward and put the past behind us.

Shepherd: How are you faring holding the Senate seat held for so long by Spencer Coggs? How do you feel about the Coggs legacy in politics?

Harris: There certainly was this legacy campaign that was right alongside my campaign, so obviously there were some people who felt that this legacy should continue. I just believe that the people spoke. I heard it at the doors. They were ready for change and that’s how they voted. It’s something that I am continuously seeing in my role as a new state senator. People are glad to see me here. They welcome me with open arms and believe that it’s a new day and it’s time for new voices in the community. There is a legacy that was left and I don’t think it’s something that should be washed away. But it certainly can be improved and I’m here to help improve it.

Shepherd: What sorts of proposals are you going to put forward this session?

Harris: I’m working on issues like employment. I’m having lots of meetings in the community about the 30th Street corridor and business development along that corridor that will spur job creation as well as provide some livable-wage jobs, family-sustaining jobs. I’m also working on finding innovative ways to sustain our public education system. I don’t have the answer yet but I’m having lots of meetings. I’m having conversations with people across the country who are dealing with the same issue and talking about what real education reform looks like. I would like, in the coming months, to see good legislation come out of my office where I am leading on that issue with better practices. Health care is another big one. Transportation—having been a county supervisor I understand the linkage between good transportation and jobs. If we cut routes that equals lost jobs for Milwaukeeans. So issues like that. I’m looking forward to writing good legislation about these issues.

Shepherd: Last week the Assembly passed the Milwaukee County board “reform” bill, which you oppose. Did you realize this was in the works when you were on the board?

Harris: There were rumblings about it. In fact I felt that the board should be prepared for something like this to happen because we did hear the rumblings. But I don’t think it was taken very seriously that it was going to happen, unfortunately. Most unfortunately, the fact that the state is even taking it up is really disheartening because it’s a local control issue. But I’m not sure if the board or myself or anyone else was prepared to see it happen the way it did happen.

Shepherd: Having served on the board, do you think these changes are warranted? Do you think the board should lose a lot of its oversight of contracts and land sales?

Harris: As I said in my testimony, I think all sectors of government could use a little tweaking. We could all do our jobs a little bit better. None of us is perfect. I would say that with the county, of course there could be some reform. I just didn’t feel that this was the type of reform that Milwaukee County needed.

In fact, I think what would have been more palatable is—if the state was going to get involved at the level we are—then maybe we should have looked at consolidating programs across the city, state and county levels and looked at how we can be more efficient in running our programs because we overlap in so many different ways. That’s a way we could fine tune what we’re doing and save taxpayer dollars. But this [bill] seems to be a vindictive move and being logical didn’t seem like it was part of the plan. It was like, “Let me cut the board and take their power away,” even though there was already a lot of reform going on within. It didn’t have to happen this way. I think true reform would have looked at how we can be more efficient working together across governmental lines. If that meant consolidating programs, that would have been a better way to go.



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