The biggest moment of John Harris ’s career was also the biggest moment of his father, Mark’s. But they were notable in very, very different ways.

The cameras trained on the elder Harris shedding a tear as John came to the stand to testify about whether his father’s campaign had known the intentions of Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., a Bladen County campaign operative accused of ballot harvesting.

Mark, a Baptist pastor, was the Republican candidate in the November 2018 race to represent the 9th Congressional District. He’d declared victory, but concerns over irregularities in absentee ballots led to a State Board of Elections investigation.

At the time, Mark maintained that he was unaware of that Dowless was undertaking any potentially illegal activities. “Everything had come out just perfectly fine” in their background checks, he told WFAE.

But John, a federal prosecutor, testified that the opposite was true. He testified that he had written an email to his father back in 2017 stating his belief that Dowless was up to no good.

“I expressed my concerns based on everything I did know at that point, namely my belief that McCrae had engaged in collecting ballots in 2016 … I thought that what he was doing was illegal,” he said. “And I was right.”

The testimony sparked a debate on the legitimacy of his father’s election and ultimately contributed to Mark Harris conceding that a new election should be held. Mark did not participate in the new election, citing health concerns, and Republican Dan Bishop eventually prevailed over Democrat Dan McCready. Dowless was indicted on charges related to election fraud, but died of lung cancer before that trial could begin.

In an exclusive interview with The Assembly, Mark Harris did acknowledge “red flags” about Dowless, while going into detail about his side of this story – including the very public confrontation with his son.

That moment on the stand in February 2019 changed the fortunes of both Harrises forever. Now, the younger Harris is running to represent North Carolina House District 36, staking out his own political career.

His is a story of what happens when love, truth, and duty come into conflict in a very public way.

Will of the People

John Harris, who turns 33 this month, lives in Apex with his wife, Kerryanne, and their three children. It’s a lived-in suburban house; the living room piano is covered in fingerprints, and a kiddie gate corrals toys.

We talk in his kitchen on an early morning, before he heads to campaign events. John, a double graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, embodies a blend of Southern decorum and cerebral disposition.

“I read Thomas Paine on the beach at 15,” he says. “I love ideas.”

After law school, he clerked for Washington, D.C., federal judge Karen Henderson, before coming home to NC in 2016 to begin a career in law, first in private practice and then as a federal prosecutor.

It’s a philosophical inquiry about the nature of politics that draws him to public office, he says—a desire to “discern the true will of the people.”

“Not just the C-suite,” he adds.

He’s drawn to debates about things like the influence of large multinational corporations on our political discourse. One of his platform priorities is increasing financial development in Wake County by building better infrastructure to attract investor money. To him, that means investing in things like roads and clean energy. Those are crucial for making North Carolina a hub for investment capital, just like the Bay Area or New York, Harris said.

“Post-pandemic, the geographic boundaries have gone away,” says Harris. He wants the state to take advantage of the increase in remote work to attract Fortune 500 companies.

I ask him what he’d do about the lobbying power big businesses inevitably bring, especially on social issues. (Conservative lawmakers in Florida, for example, had recently been at odds with Disney over the company lobbying for LGBTQ education in public elementary schools.)

“Pressure has always existed at every level,” he says, but “we don’t owe these companies on this social dimension.”

On education, he said he favors a parent-centered model, where families have more freedom to make the best decisions for their children. He passionately argues against requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for kids in schools, for example, because policy should reflect differences in how parents evaluate the risks and rewards of doing so. He also believes school closures during the pandemic did long-term damage to learning, and that the health benefits did not outweigh the costs.

John Harris campaigns through neighborhoods in Apex, North Carolina with his family. Photos by Cornell Watson

“Wake [County Public Schools] didn’t go back until March 2021,” he says. His family had chosen to put the kids in a private school with in-person learning.

His other social stances, however, can feel calibrated. He is reluctant to talk about debates on race or gender. He demurs on a question about Apex’s upcoming Pride Festival, which had recently canceled, and then un-canceled, a Drag Queen Story Hour amid controversy.

John maintains that discussing these controversial social issues is not a priority of his campaign—which, in and of itself, is distinctly different from a lot of Republican candidates on the ballot this year. He wants to talk about the rapid growth in southern Wake County, and about things like infrastructure.

“You can’t build the types of houses you want without sufficient infrastructure,” he says. “We should ensure we don’t have overly restrictive and burdensome laws that prevent housing supply from being created.”

He wants a government that works for him, his kids, and his neighbors.

“I’m an institutionalist at heart,” he says. “I support bread and butter initiatives to help people’s lives.”

An Opportunity in Wake

I followed Harris over to the grand opening of a new Wake County GOP headquarters that morning. MAGA towels are scattered around the office. One of the shirts on sale reads “I Tested Positive for Freedom.”

Harris looks a lot like another young Republican candidate who was there at the meeting: the Trump-endorsed Bo Hines of the 13th Congressional District. They are both lean, with Roman noses, and clean-shaven, angular faces.

But while Hines touts his loyalty to Trump and plays to culture war themes at the event, Harris conveys a more genteel register.

Harris begins his stump speech by talking about his kids.

“This is why we fight, this is why we run, this is why we knock on doors,” he tells the crowd. He says nothing about his father or his role in that 2018 campaign.

“Republican, conservative ideas, they are what made this country great,” he says.

The speech gathered polite applause. Harris had just finished his unopposed run in the May Republican primary for District 36, which encompasses southwestern Wake County, including fast-growing Apex. But November will bring a real challenge; 53 percent of the district voted for the Democratic incumbent, Julie von Haefen, in 2020. The Republican candidate got just 43 percent.

Von Haefen, an attorney and the incumbent since 2018, has raised about $121,000 for her race compared to John’s $133,000, making this race effectively a tie in fundraising. Bills she’s introduced include a $15 mandatory minimum wage for school employees as well as various salary increases for community college employees.

She is a formidable opponent for John. But Republicans still see opportunity.

“Although it’s a district that President Biden won, District 36 is a politically competitive district where Republicans can be competitive with the right candidate,” said Neal Inman, chief of staff to N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore and a former law school classmate of Harris. “It’s high-income and has many voters with college or postgraduate degrees. Voters are willing to split their tickets based on individual candidates.”

John Harris takes a photo with supporters before campaigning. Photos by Cornell Watson

The district also has a sizable Libertarian presence; the local Libertarian candidate drew 3.7 percent of the vote in 2020.

Harris seems unbothered by the district’s Democratic lean. His target is highly educated suburban voters, where he thinks messages about education, infrastructure, and protecting families will resonate. But those voters increasingly have voted for Democrats.

The district is definitely not Trump country, and Harris, in any case, does not play to that crowd. Unless prompted, he says nothing about the 45th President, who retains an outsize influence in Republican politics. His campaign website features no Trump endorsement: “Donald Trump has no idea who I am and could care little about my State House race,” Harris told me.

It’s not just Trump. Harris has distanced himself from party leaders in the state as well, including Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who has been touring the state on a platform of fighting critical race theory and gender ideology in schools, including the controversy over the Drag Queen Story Hour in Apex.

“He’s a powerful speaker, I’ll give him that,” Harris said. “He draws attention to issues the media will not pay attention to.” But Harris declines to endorse Robinson.

Even his first interaction with Bo Hines was noticeably perfunctory. They met for the first time at the Wake event, talked a bit about their families, wished each luck, and moved on.

Perhaps keeping other Republicans at arm’s-length comes from personal experience of getting too close.

The Ballot is Cast

The April 7, 2017 email from John to Mark reads:

“This is not legal advice.”

This was typical for their communication in 2018. The two wrote in distant language, but John says he had only loving intentions. Mark was vetting McCrae Dowless as a campaign operative. John offered his thoughts based on what he saw in McCrae’s operation, but made clear that these were his personal views.

“The key thing that I am fairly certain [McCrae Dowless’s team does] that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” John wrote. “The way they pop up in batches at the board of elections makes me believe that. But if they simply leave the ballot with the voter and say be sure to mail this in, then that’s not illegal.”

John believed there were red flags around the older gentleman who promised to “get out the vote” for Mark’s campaign. He studied Dowless’s campaign operations and found that votes came in “batches,” signaling to him that they were dropping off absentee ballots en masse, which is illegal under North Carolina law.

Mark responded with a quick “thanks so much.”

Yet Dowless came with glowing recommendations from state officials. As he recalled one telling him, “McCrae does things right, he said he’s a good ol’ boy who eats, drinks, smokes politics. And he knows everyone” in the county.

The elder Harris decided to hire the seasoned campaign operative despite John’s warnings.

He defeated Democrat Dan McCready by just about 900 votes. But after Election Day, the State Elections Board member Josh Malcolm received a tip from a Bladen County Board of Elections member about Dowless’s potentially illicit activities.

Among them: taking absentee ballots from voters’ houses and dropping them off himself.

Malcolm moved to dissolve the about-to-be-certified election, which the board approved in a 9-0 vote.

Then Mark Harris fell ill—possibly from physical exhaustion, and bad enough that he spent weeks in the hospital. Mentally weakened and physically incapacitated, his lawyers worked on the case without him while Mark attempted to recover for the trial.

A few weeks before his father was scheduled to testify in front of the State Board of Elections, John was called in for an interview.

TOP: Mark Harris fights back tears at the conclusion of his son’s testimony during the third day of a public evidentiary hearing on voting irregularities. BOTTOM: John Harris testifies on Feb. 20, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. Photos by Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, Pool

This put the relatively new federal prosecutor in a difficult position. “Dad said on television that there were ‘no red flags,’” John told The Assembly. He knew for a fact he had informed his father about Dowless’s potentially illicit tactics.

John brought a copy of that email to his interview. The NC State BOE investigators told John they hadn’t seen these emails before. John told them he believed his father’s campaign had provided the emails, but he would later learn that they had not.

The state board’s receipt of the correspondence led to John’s now-famous testimony at the courthouse.

Come What May

Mark and his wife, Beth, still express ire about the sequence of events that undid his candidacy.

In our recent interview, he pointed to a WRAL column, “Plenty of NC politicos hired McCrae Dowless; they just don’t want to talk about it.” A 2016 legal complaint showed that Malcolm, the state board member, dismissed previous allegations into Dowless’s ballot collecting, saying it wouldn’t have made a difference in the election anyway.

The elder Harris maintains that Dowless pitched him a perfectly legal operation, and that he had no indication that the tactics were illicit.

But he does regret not devoting more resources to keeping an eye on Dowless’s operations. “I had no way of knowing to this day whether McCrae Dowless did the program the way he told us he was going to do it,” he said.

Mark has only the gentlest reprehension for his son’s role in the process: “If there was anything John was at fault for, it was that he wanted to get out ahead of the controversy.”

John should have communicated with the family personally before showing the state board his email, Mark said.

But John said he did communicate with the campaign’s lawyer, David Freedman, who attested that the emails were going to be revealed to the state board. John even visited his dad at the hospital about two weeks before the scheduled public hearing date. Given his father’s health, John urged his family to delay the hearing.

His mother said they would think about it. They went ahead with the hearing anyway.

At the point he was called to testify, John knew he had to tell the truth, even if it hurt his family and his father’s electoral prospects.

So when he was called to the witness stand by the state board of elections, he told the whole truth. But he added an afterword, a conclusion that showed how much he’d thought about the whole process, and his role in it:

“I just want to say this in closing. I love my dad, and I love my mom. OK? I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle, OK? I think that they made mistakes in this process, and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.

But the thing about all of this and engaging in this process and watching it all unfold, I’ve thought a lot more about my own little ones than my parents and the world that we’re building for them. … And I will be frank, Mr. Chairman, watching all this process unfold, we have got to come up with a way to transcend our partisan politics and the exploitation of processes like this for political gain. That goes for both parties, Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians.

And frankly, when I’m coming out of this process, I’m just left thinking that we can all do a lot better than this. And that’s all I have, Mr. Chairman. Thank you.”

“Tell the truth,” John recounted, not only about his father’s campaign but as a general principle. “It sounds so simple but people don’t do it.”

He added one addendum: “Come what may.”

But that doesn’t mean that John didn’t have empathy for his father and the cost of running a campaign like he had, only to fall short like this. “In the end, I was publicly praised, and he was publicly shamed,” John said.

Photos by Cornell Watson

Mark Harris now runs a church grassroots operation for the Family Research Council, recruiting and maintaining contact with churches in support of the group’s priorities, which include opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, and critical race theory.

He laments the process that denied him what he still believes was a fairly won election. Thirteen Ballots is the name of the forthcoming book he and his wife wrote recounting the events—the title a reference to the number of ballots his campaign was formally accused of harvesting.

Even without Dowless’s operation, they maintain, Mark had enough votes to win the election anyway. It’s a stroke of defiance for the elder Harris, who otherwise comes across as gentle and easygoing.

The father and son said they harbor no ill will for each other. They’d recently returned from a “really nice time at the beach,” John said, “little kids running around all the time.” They have reached a “sort of happy place,” he said—of forgiveness, of mutual peace.

Politics is a serious business, John said more than once. And politicians need to “educate the public to see what is the right thing,” he said.

Sometimes that means doing things that conflict with family—making political decisions based on principle, rather than letting principle be determined by politics.

Kenny Xu is a North Carolina-based author and journalist. His latest book, An Inconvenient Minority, is about the controversy over Asian American applications to Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.