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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Eyes on Topeka: Young Democrat confident in bid for state legislature

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    • Quotable:

      "Winning the primary showed I'm not just a kid playing around with the idea of it, I'm a serious candidate who has already won his primary challenge."
      — Austin Harris, 18, of Tonganox...

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      Quotable:

      "Winning the primary showed I'm not just a kid playing around with the idea of it, I'm a serious candidate who has already won his primary challenge."

      — Austin Harris, 18, of Tonganoxie, a candidate for the 42nd District in the Kansas House of Representatives

  • The past, Austin Harris told his Tonganoxie High School classmates in a graduation speech earlier this summer, "may be who we are today, but the future holds who we will soon become."
    "No matter what life might bring, we know that greatness is sure to come," he said in the speech.
    The question of what the 18-year-old Harris might become, at least in the short term, is just months away from being answered.
    Harris, who is entering his freshman year at Washburn University in Topeka, is the Democratic Party's nominee for the 42nd District seat in the Kansas House of Representatives. He is vying for the seat, which encompasses parts of Leavenworth and Douglas counties, against incumbent Connie O'Brien.
    Should he win, he'd become one of the youngest representatives in Kansas history. He said he learned through the state library that a 19-year-old from Wichita once held a legislative seat.
    Harris turns 19 in early October.
    At Washburn, he'll major in history with a minor in leadership, fitting topics given his current bid for state office.
    "It's always been a dream of mine to get involved in politics, leadership and government," Harris said earlier this week. "… I'd always assumed it would be a little farther down the road that I got active, but I decided to throw my hat in this year because of the changes I was seeing to education in the classroom."
    O'Brien, a Republican, was elected to the legislature in 2008.
    Harris said his challenge to O'Brien's re-election isn't a direct reflection of his opinion of her public service.
    "I think Representative O'Brien has fulfilled a lot of the things she's run on, and I think she's done a good job for the greater part of her six years in office," he said. "That doesn't mean I agree with everything that she does and all the bills that she's voted on."
    "I'm not doing this out of a lack of respect or dislike for Mrs. O'Brien, I'm doing it because we don't see eye-to-eye on every issue and I want to make sure the district has a representative that best meets its needs and desires."
    While he can't match O'Brien's political or life experiences, Harris said he offers traits many voters along the campaign trail have found refreshing — a departure from the status quo and a new perspective.
    "I've seen a lot of people unhappy about the legislature and some of the recent legislation that has come down," he said. "I think there are a lot of moderates in the district and across the state who are unhappy with the things they've seen and are ready for a change and a new voice."
    The young Democrat said he was worried early in his campaign, specifically in the weeks and months leading up to the primary, that voters would view his candidacy as having less legitimacy because of his age.
    Page 2 of 2 - He believes voters are taking him seriously now, following his narrow Aug. 5 victory over Easton Democrat Harold Fevurly, Jr.
    "When I first chose to run, one of the biggest inhibitions and worries was that I wouldn't be taken seriously, that I would be pushed aside as an 18-year-old running and I wouldn't be seen as having a chance," Harris said. "In the primary, on a lot of door steps, on a lot of phone calls, people were happy and excited to see a young person getting involved.
    "Winning the primary showed I'm not just a kid playing around with the idea of it, I'm a serious candidate who has already won his primary challenge."
    Harris said he's already considered how winning the legislative seat might affect his studies at Washburn. He is maintaining residency in Tonganoxie, and will be spending a majority of his time at home in the 42nd District campaigning.
    Should he win in November and take office in January, Harris said he would not take classes second semester and instead devote his time to serving.
    "I want to make sure I'm doing the best job I can and that means dedicating all my time and all my efforts to that job, to the district and to the legislature," Harris said. "If that means I'll have to take some classes in the summer, and it may take a little longer to get through college, then that's something I'm willing to do to make sure I'm doing the job."
    Harris stopped short of predicting a win in November, though he's confident the hard work he, family members and volunteers have put in campaigning will pay off.
    "If, at the end of the election, (it's) Mrs. O'Brien again, then that's what should happen," he said.
    "I'm going to put in all the time and effort I can. … Either way, Nov. 5, I don't think anyone is going to wake up and say, 'We could have, we should have done more.' We're going to give it everything we've got."

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