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As what he once pledged would be his last term nears, Rep. Andy Harris stays in step with Trump

In 2016, then President-elect Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (center, top) shared a suite box on the Navy side during the second quarter of the Army-Navy football game in Baltimore.
In 2016, then President-elect Donald Trump, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (center, top) shared a suite box on the Navy side during the second quarter of the Army-Navy football game in Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

Donald Trump’s repeated election fraud claims have an ardent backer in U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, who is in lockstep with the president as the Maryland Republican begins what he once promised would be his final congressional term.

As he prepares for the start of his sixth term next month, Harris, 63, is unique in this deep-blue state’s 10-person congressional delegation. He is the only Republican, the only supporter of Trump’s efforts to overturn what the president baselessly says was a rigged election, and the only one who pledged to limit his tenure in the House.

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Harris was a conservative state senator and congressional candidate in 2010 when he first promised to serve no more than six terms, or 12 years, if elected. He made the pledge during a period of voter anger against government and “career politicians.” It would kick in at the end of the new, two-year term that begins Jan. 3.

Harris hasn’t publicly said anything about the pledge, lately, though. He declined to be interviewed for this article and he and his staff did not return messages about his promise to leave office early in 2023. Meanwhile, he has more than $1 million in campaign cash, according to Federal Election Commission records.

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For a decade, Harris, a Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist, has represented the 1st Congressional District, which includes parts of Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties, as well as the Eastern Shore. The Democratic-controlled General Assembly packed the district with Republican voters after the 2010 census to maximize Democrats’ chances in the state’s other seven districts.

While Harris has handily won his elections in the safe seat, his tenure has been accompanied by drama — from a meeting two years ago with an internet troll who promotes false news and inflammatory conspiracy theories (Harris said he was unaware of the man’s “previous associations”) to a 2019 confrontation in which the congressman said marijuana legalization activists tried to forcibly enter his office.

More recently, Harris hosted a livestreamed, audio “town hall” Tuesday in which some constituents pushed back against his support of Trump’s election claims. Harris also suggested during the meeting that low-risk Marylanders should wait to get a coronavirus vaccine until any long-term side effects are assessed.

Harris was one of 126 House Republicans who signed onto a Dec. 8 “friend of the court” brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a Texas lawsuit — quickly rejected by the court — that sought to overturn the election won by Democrat Joe Biden. The brief alleged unconstitutional voting irregularities in battleground states.

Not only did his participation put Harris out of step with the rest of the state’s congressional delegation, but fellow Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has urged the GOP to acknowledge Biden’s victory.

Still, analysts say the congressman probably won’t pay a political price in the Republican-heavy 1st District.

“His only threat, other than redistricting, is being challenged from the right in a primary, and it’s hard to imagine someone attacking Andy Harris from the right,” said Todd Eberly, professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College. “It is Maryland’s Republican district, drawn that way to make sure Republicans weren’t [elected] in other districts.”

It was uncertain whether Harris might follow the lead of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who on Wednesday acknowledged Biden had won.

When a caller at the town hall raised the subject of the election, Harris said the session would remain focused on answering questions about the vaccines that Maryland hospitals and nursing homes — and eventually the general public — are to receive.

Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, center, with his son, Charles Harris, right, and Republican state Sen. Bob Cassilly, left, await the arrival of GOP President Donald Trump on May 25, 2020, at Fort McHenry in Baltimore.
Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, center, with his son, Charles Harris, right, and Republican state Sen. Bob Cassilly, left, await the arrival of GOP President Donald Trump on May 25, 2020, at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. (Amy Davis)

Harris, who cheerfully moderated and fielded questions, suggested that constituents at low risk for coronavirus forgo getting vaccinated initially.

“I would say, ‘Look, let people who have higher risk get the first batch of vaccines,’ ” the congressman said. “They need it more because they’re high risk and more will be known about the vaccines in a few months. If you’re at lower risk, you might want to wait a little bit for it.”

He said healthy women trying to get pregnant should not be vaccinated because “there is reason to believe it may increase the miscarriage rate.” He also advised against people who had previously been infected taking the vaccine, saying that could cause an adverse immune response.

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The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that COVID-19 vaccines not be withheld from a woman because she is pregnant.

And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has said people who were previously sick with COVID-19 may still benefit from getting vaccinated because it’s unclear how long their natural immunity might last.

Lishamarie Hunter, a Perryville art instructor and Army veteran, was among about 2,000 people listening in to Harris’ town hall as constituents’ comments scrolled down the right side of the Facebook page. She said in an online interview afterward that she was aghast.

“He is actually causing distrust about the vaccine and possibly the science we’re hearing from the experts,” she said.

Medical experts say that — while there is still more that can be learned about long-term effects — the U.S. vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are safe and that public acceptance of the shots is critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Most people did not have side effects in vaccine trials, but some had mild fever, headaches or pain at the injection site, according to Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy secretary for public health services.

Like Trump, Harris has been critical of local governments he believes have been excessive in shutting down businesses to lessen the spread of the coronavirus.

“The science says restaurants are not significant contributors of COVID spread,” Harris tweeted Wednesday. “Shutting them down is wrong and I’m glad to see Maryland judges are starting to agree.” The tweet came on the day an Anne Arundel County judge blocked that county’s in-person dining ban.

During the town hall, the discourse sharpened when a woman, introduced as Phyllis from Berlin in Worcester County, alleged Harris set a poor example by sometimes not wearing a face covering. If he is not wearing a mask, the congressman replied, that’s because he might be briefly posing for a picture or in a setting — such as one outside and distanced from others — where one is not required.

“Why weren’t you advocating these in March or April?” she asked.

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Harris maintained that he was, and the questioner said she had seen photos of him, maskless, before accusing Harris of “wanting to turn over the will of the people in all of the states” by supporting the Texas lawsuit.

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“I think I was just elected by the people,” replied Harris, who won 63.4% of the vote in defeating military veteran and transgender rights activist Mia Mason on Nov. 3.

In the days after the election, Harris alleged “large-scale voting irregularities,” including “secret, unobserved vote counting in the swing states.”

“Philosophically, he is line with where the Republican Party is in Congress right now,” Eberly, the St. Mary’s College professor, said of Harris. “Look at the number who signed onto the amicus brief in the Texas case.

Hogan, whose aides did not respond to requests to interview him for this article, said last month that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the U.S. The governor has said the refusal of leading voices in his party to accept Biden’s election could “tarnish the brand” of the GOP.

Wayne Gilchrest, who represented the 1st District as a Republican for 18 years until losing to Harris in a 2008 primary, said the “new wave of Trumpism” is neither about ideology nor public policy.

“This is about staying in office,” he said, adding that unfounded Republican claims could dangerously undermine faith in the electoral system. Gilchrest became a Democrat in 2019.

Trump campaign lawyers have alleged poll watchers were blocked from election sites, while the president and others have suggested equipment from Dominion Voting Systems was used to flip votes. State and local election officials, including Republicans, have refuted the claims, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press on Dec. 1 that the Justice Department found no evidence of fraud that could have changed the outcome.

Harris, who is married to a Baltimore County political and marketing consultant, is far from the only member of the state’s GOP establishment to back Trump in questioning election procedures and pursuing possible remedies.

“Andy speaks for the vast majority of Republicans,” said Tom Kennedy of Baltimore, who was to be a delegate to last summer’s Republican National Convention before most of it was canceled due to the coronavirus. Kennedy said he supported challenging what he believed were multiple voting irregularities.

So did Nicolee Ambrose, Maryland’s Republican national committeewoman.

“All Americans — independents, Democrats and Republicans — should want to have allegations about election discrepancies fully addressed,” Ambrose said, pointing specifically to concerns about Dominion machines in Michigan.

Maryland may be a blue state — Democrats maintain a better than 2-1 voter registration advantage — but Trump’s approval rating among state Republicans was in the range of 85% to 90% before the election, according to the state party. Election analysts say political polarization in Maryland has been hardening, with the bluest counties becoming bluer and the red counties becoming increasingly Republican.

“The Eastern Shore is more conservative now than when I ran,” said Gilchrest, who was elected nine times in the 1st District beginning in 1990. “The most conservative part is northern Anne Arundel, northern Harford and Carroll County.”

Harris, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus who was enthusiastically endorsed by Trump in June, has been a reliably Republican vote, earning high marks from anti-abortion organizations, the National Rifle Association and other interest groups often aligned with the GOP.

Harris adopted a popular Republican position in 2010 when he pledged, if elected, to leave by 2023. He unseated Democratic Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. in the election. Harris’s pledge was reported by The Baltimore Sun, which called it “an expiration date,” as well as by CNN and in media outlets around the district.

As recently as 2015, the Cecil Whig reported Harris told a high school government class in North East that he “planned to retire after 12 years in Congress, if voters elected him to do so, noting he was in favor of 12-year term limits.”

“If you’re there for 20 or 30 years, I believe you tend to get inside the Beltway and you see everything with Washington blinders on,” the newspaper quoted Harris as saying. “But believe me, Washington is not the real world. Cecil County is the real world.”

Bruce Fox, the teacher who invited Harris, told The Sun Wednesday that he remembers the congressman stressing that term limits “was one of his top priorities.”

According to Fox, Harris said being in Congress “wasn’t really meant to be a career.”

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