Profile: Mark Harris (D), State Senate 18th District

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OSHKOSH, Wis. (WBAY) – A race in the Fox Valley could play a role in changing the balance of power in the state Capitol.

Right now the state Senate is controlled by Republicans, who have 19 of the 33 seats. Democrats hold the other 14.

Eight of those seats are being contested — five currently held by Republicans, three by Democrats. Democrats need to keep their three seats and pick up three more to gain control.

One of those seats that could see some movement is the 18th District in the Fox Valley, which was held by a Republican last session. Now Republican Dan Feyen and Democrat Mark Harris are vying for that seat.

Harris was born and raised in Detroit, and went to the University of Michigan for his undergrad and law degree.

“I practiced law in Indiana for a time. I then got into trust banking. I was then recruited by Associated Bank to come up to this area, and I ran a small trust department for Associated Bank in Oshkosh,” Harris says.

Today he still lives in Oshkosh with his wife of 30 years and three sons.

He has worked for the Oshkosh city government.

“I was part-time employment as a city counselor and mayor of Oshkosh, which is really only chair of counselor because we have a city manager.”

In 2005 he was elected to Winnebago County Executive.

In 2014, he ran for Wisconsin’s 6th District Congressional seat but lost to Glenn Grothman.

“That election was tremendous help in this one. You know, basically I met a lot of people many of whom are supporting my campaign today. I also learned how to campaign in a partisan environment. It’s very different than the non-partisan positions I’ve held in the past.”

Now in his third term as county executive, Mark Harris is tackling a new challenge, running as a Democrat for the 18th District State Senate race — a race that could help change the majority in the Senate.

“Even if the Democrats have control of the state senate, that doesn’t give them a lot of power to initiate legislation,” he says, “but what it would give us the power to do is to stop the worst instincts of this administration.”

In this election, Harris is touting what he calls a successful record as executive of Winnebago County.

“I’m very proud of my record there: Tax rates lower than when I started, the county spending is lower than when I started, but I’m most proud that the county debt has been cut in half during that time.”

He hopes to carry that record to the state Senate, focused on a variety of issues, including K-12 education.

“It used to be that you only saw referendums when people were trying to raise money for capital projects, but now you’re seeing districts go out for referendums for operating expenses. That’s a change, and that’s a direct result in declining state funding or state funding that’s maybe staying flat in dollar terms but not keeping up with the rising cost.”

Harris doesn’t think an expanded school voucher program is an answer. Instead, he says the state needs to take a look at funding.

“I think we have to go back and look at what’s an appropriate level of funding and what’s the appropriate percentage that should come from the state versus from the property taxes.”

Like the K-12 system, Harris believes the UW System is not getting enough money from the state.

He also sees importance in keeping people in Wisconsin by giving them the skills to fill available jobs in the state.

“We have to help the people that are here gain the skills they need to take those jobs. We’ve got an excellent technical college system.”

He believes the state needs to re-evaluate the transportation budget.

“I’ll tell you what we can’t do, if we continue to have an ambitious schedule for projects but instead of getting the dedicated revenue from the dedicated sources we use debt that jeopardizes future road maintenance and repair.”

Harris agrees he can be described as more fiscally conservative and socially liberal. He hopes to bring his philosophy of government to Madison.

“It’s government’s job to try and meet the unmet needs of ordinary citizens, those things that can best be done as a society that wouldn’t be accomplished by the private sector, not to compete with the private sector but to fill the gaps.”

Harris says you can do that through fair tax and fair spending.