New Jersey's Tamara Harris Is In It To Win It

Photo Courtesy of Tamara Harris. Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Tamara Harris may be the underdog in her New Jersey congressional race, but you wouldn't know that when talking with her. The family advocate and entrepreneur is high-energy as she describes what motivated her to run for office, how her background would help her serve the 11th District constituents, and why we need more women of color in positions of leadership — which makes it easy to nod along while she makes her case.
And if something was clear at the end of her interview with Refinery29, it was that her decision to run for office was more than an aspiration to her. For Harris, it is a duty.
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"I became severely concerned for our democracy," she said. "What I realized is that if I didn't step up ... the foundations that underpin the advocacy that I care about so much would be under attack and greatly at risk."
Harris grew up seeing policy be enacted at the Legislature of the U.S. Virgin Islands and, years later, swapped a lucrative career in investment banking for advocacy, so she seems to truly believe what she says. Her path to becoming a candidate is similar to that of so many other women running for office in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election: She was fired up by Hillary Clinton's defeat and what she sees as the dangerous policies implemented by President Trump during his first year in office. But another crucial reason Harris decided to seek office was to show her daughters, aged 16 and 19, that women must have a seat at the table.
"Our daughters needed to see our strength," she said. "When we look at the State of the Union, where women were not mentioned even once, I don’t think I need to say anything else. As a woman, if you step into this space, you’re saying that women matter and women can lead."
The self-proclaimed "BAM" — businesswoman, advocate, mother — wants to replace Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who was elected in 1994. The veteran Republican recently announced he won't seek reelection, and the Democratic party hopes that will give them a chance to flip the seat. According to the Cook Political Report, which rates congressional races, the election is still a "toss up" since President Trump narrowly won the district and then a year later Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy carried the seat. Other than Harris, four other candidates are in the Democratic primary.
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Harris' path toward running for office has been a long time in the making. Born in St. Croix and raised in St. Thomas, as a little girl she constantly went to the office of her late father, who worked for a senator in the island. There, Harris got a taste of how policy was made and how it could impact people's everyday lives.
"One of the really special opportunities I had as a young girl growing up was sneaking into the legislative chambers," she said. "I remember as a nine- or 10-year-old watching 16 senators debate politics and create law."
But those experiences didn't led her directly to politics. Instead, Harris worked in international finance, at one point living in Hong Kong and Beijing, but after her first daughter was born, she switched careers. She went on to become a divorce coach, after going through her own high-stakes separation, and moonlighted as family advocate and college professor. Throughout it all, she was active behind the scenes organizing and supporting Democratic candidates at different levels — until she started thinking about running for office.
"Running is not this new thing that I sort of woke up and decided to do," she said. "It's really me moving from the background to the front line."
Harris threw her hat in the ring in August 2017. Most of her stances fall on the progressive side: retaining and improving the Affordable Care Act, supporting universal background checks on all gun purchases, defending women's right to choose, reforming the immigration system, and making higher education more accessible.
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She was endorsed by Higher Heights for America, a group with the goal of electing more Black women to office. (The organization says Harris's background "uniquely prepared" her to serve in office.) But the road hasn't exactly been easy. For example, Harris doesn't have the backing of other groups that help women running for office. There's obvious frustration in her voice when she discusses the lack of institutional support for candidates of color, a grievance shared by many leaders across the country.
"When you look at places like New Jersey or some other states where you have a primary where a candidate is chosen, sometimes women of color — their voices will be silenced or they will be shut down early in a race," she said. "We deal with different dynamics politically, in terms of being supported by the party or system."
The New Jersey primary falls on June 5. And even though she's facing several obstacles, Harris said she is going all the way. It's obvious that she's not a quitter.
"A lot of times, as I tell people, we wait for permission to go on a mission," she said. "I don’t ask for permission."
2018 will see an unprecedented number of female candidates in ballots across the country. More than 500 women are currently running for the House, Senate, or governorships — and that's without taking into account the number of candidates vying for local and statewide seats. Refinery29 is committed to spotlight female candidates, but particularly women of color, who have risen up to the challenge to say: "It's our turn."
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