Politics & Government

Harris took a ‘step of faith.’ Now his election must be redone, and the future is uncertain.

Mark Harris, in his third run for political office, would go all in.

Unlike his two previous unsuccessful campaigns, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Charlotte resigned from the job he’d held since 2005.

“I enjoyed everything about it. Yet there was a sense of call or purpose for me to step into this arena and to do this,” Harris testified Thursday during the final day of a four-day hearing before the State Board of Elections.

“It was going to be the largest step of faith we had taken.”

Even before Harris made his final decision, he’d been making plans for another campaign. Among them: He secured the services of McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County elected official and political operative, whose work in the 2016 primary for another Republican may have cost Harris a seat in Congress.

Or so Harris thought.

This story of how Harris moved from that 2016 result through the dramatic hearing this week has been reported through documents compiled by the North Carolina State Board of Elections in its investigation into the 2018 election in the 9th Congressional District, from testimony delivered under oath at four days of hearings before the board, from interviews from before and after the election through the hearing and from other sources.

The five-member board voted unanimously Thursday to call for a new election in the 9th District after Harris’ stunning decision to ask for a new election from the witness stand, ending months of fighting for certification of his apparent 905-vote victory against Democrat Dan McCready.

“I believe a new election should be called,” Harris said. “It’s become clear to me the public’s confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.”

The episode has no doubt taken a toll on the 52-year-old Harris. He has battled health issues in recent weeks, became emotional during testimony from his oldest son, paid a steep political price and faces questions about his truthfulness after the lengthy investigation.

“It’s going to be very difficult for him to have any kind of political comeback,” said Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College, alluding to evidence, testimony and tough questioning at the hearing. “I think what this is more emblematic of on a bigger scale is this winner-take-all, extreme team mentality that literally both parties are getting into that has the kind of repercussions of we will win at any cost.”

‘Something gone awry’

Mark Harris was born and grew up in Winston-Salem. By 14, he was stuffing envelopes for Ronald Reagan. He was involved in Boys State and Boys Nation, programs that offer hands-on experience in government. He studied political science at Appalachian State, graduating in 1987, and was accepted into law school.

But then his path changed.

Weeks before his wedding to Beth, Harris chose the ministry. He attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. By 1989, Harris was senior pastor at Center Grove Baptist in Clemons. Then he went to Curtis Baptist in Augusta, Ga. In 2005, Harris became senior pastor at First Baptist Church. He and Beth have been married for 31 years and have three children, two boys and a girl.

In 2012, Harris found his way back to politics. He led support for a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. The amendment passed with 61 percent of the vote.

From there, Harris sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2014. He finished a distant third.

In 2016, Harris again ran for office — this time challenging incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger in the newly redrawn 9th Congressional District, which stretches from Charlotte to Bladen County. Redistricting led to a compressed campaign calendar, a nine-week sprint for Harris and his campaign.

“I filed on Good Friday at the end of March,” Harris said Thursday, “and we had the election on June 7.”

Pittenger defeated Harris in a tight three-way race by 134 votes.

But Harris’ oldest son, John, a federal law clerk in the D.C. Circuit Court, had noticed anomalies in absentee ballots in Bladen County. He was reviewing publicly available voting information, sorting it and analyzing it.

He noticed a few things: a higher-than-expected percentage of African-American voters were participating in the Republican primary, an extraordinary number of absentee by mail votes as compared to total votes in Bladen County and that many of the absentee ballots that were returned arrived at the Board of Elections on the same day.

On Election Night, in preparation for a possible recount, Harris emailed his father with his suspicions.

“This smacks of something gone awry,” John Harris wrote.

Todd Johnson, the third-place finisher overall, received 221 mail-in absentee votes in Bladen County. Harris received four. Pittenger received one.

“Johnson beat me significantly in that county and with absentee ballots. And I remember looking at that and going, wow, that’s unusual,” Harris told WBTV reporter Nick Ochsner. A transcript of the interview was entered into evidence at the hearing.

In late June, Mark Harris learned what happened in Bladen County.

“(Former) judge Marion Warren, in that phone call, shared with me that he really wished he had made contact between me and a gentleman in Bladen County before Dowless got connected with Todd Johnson.”

Warren, Harris testified, went on to explain that Dowless was a “good ole boy from Bladen County,” who “eats, sleeps, drinks and loves politics.” Warren said Harris should reach out to him if he ever decided to run again and he would introduce him to Dowless, a convicted felon who has worked for candidates of both parties and made friends and enemies across the county.

In November 2016, Pittenger won re-election, and Democrat Roy Cooper defeated incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory in a close race. The McCrory campaign complained to the state board about voting irregularities in some counties, including Bladen, soon after the election. Dowless also filed a complaint about a Democratic group in Bladen County, even though he’d won his race for the county’s soil and water conservation district.

On Nov. 15, John Harris forwarded a fundraising email from Republicans with the subject “Democrat Voting Fraud Scheme Uncovered.”

Mark Harris replied: “Interestingly enough, the guy who made the claim, Dowess (sic), is the same guy that Johnson paid to run the “absentee ballot program” for him! Guess he didn’t like the Dems cutting into his business!”

It is not clear how Harris knew that Dowless had filed a complaint along with McCrory.

In testimony, Harris said he wrote the email with “bitterness over losing by 134 votes and this guy getting 221 mail-in absentee votes.”

“I was obviously very bitter and frustrated on Nov. 15,” he said.

‘Could have put me in the US House’

Just months later, as he pondered another campaign, Harris moved past that bitterness. He was not over the 2016 results, though.

He wanted to meet Dowless himself and he asked Warren to introduce him, according to a text message not produced by the Harris campaign to the state board until Thursday morning.

In the message, dated March 8, 2017, Harris wrote Warren to take him up on his “gracious offer to meet me in Bladen County and spend a day connecting me to the ‘key people’ that can help me carry that part of the county in a future US House NC-9 race.”

The message continued: “You know the political and financial connections better than anyone else I would know, including the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term, had I known, and he had been helping us.”

Though Warren could not make the eventual meeting on April 6, Harris met with Dowless, Bladen County Commissioner Ray Britt, businessman Pat Melvin and Bladen County GOP chair Walter McDuffie at Britt’s furniture store in Bladen County. Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker was invited to attend, but could not make it.

It was there that Dowless first explained to Harris his two-phase program for absentee ballot — getting voters to request mail-in absentee ballots and then following up to encourage them to vote for Dowless’ preferred candidates and return their ballots.

“We don’t take the ballot,” Harris testified Dowless told him. “I don’t care if it’s a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair or with a walker. We don’t touch ballots and we don’t take ballots.”

Dowless explained that he paid workers $4 or $4.50 for each absentee ballot request form they returned, telling Harris this was a better system than paying workers by the hour.

Previous testimony at the hearing from Lisa Britt, Dowless’ stepdaughter and a paid worker for him, indicated that Dowless’ operation took ballots and returned them to Dowless at his home or office. Britt also testified that workers filled in some down-ballot races and witnessed ballots at later dates.

But, at the time, Harris said he didn’t have concerns about the program Dowless explained to him. The other officials vouched for Dowless, he said, even pointing to several Republicans winning Bladen County commissioner seats in 2014.

“A lot of that is owed to this man McCrae Dowless and the work he’s doing,” Harris testified they told him.

Dowless declined to testify at the hearing without immunity.

‘They collect the completed absentee ballots’

On that night or the next morning, Mark Harris and his wife Beth spoke with their son John about the Dowless program. He had concerns about Dowless.

“The general sense of reports I was getting back was this guy was kind of a shady character,” John Harris said during testimony.

On April 7, John Harris emailed his father a copy of the North Carolina statute about the illegality of collecting absentee ballots. He forwarded the email to his mother. It led to a brief email exchange, in which John Harris wrote “this is not legal advice,” but proceeded to warn his parents about Dowless.

“The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” John Harris wrote.

In a later email, he warned of the possible political ramifications. He wrote that if Pittenger and not Johnson had gotten the 221 mail-in absentee ballots in the 2016 primary, he would have advocated going to the press with his data.

“Good test is if you’re comfortable with the full process he uses being broadcast on the news,” John Harris wrote.

“Thanks so much,” Mark Harris replied 15 minutes later.

Less than two weeks later on April 20, Mark Harris made his first payment to Dowless — a $450 personal check to Patriots For Progress, an independent expenditure PAC operated, in part, by Dowless. Two weeks after that on May 4, Harris wrote another personal check to Patriots For Progress. This one was for $2,890 and included payment for work in Robeson and Cumberland counties.

“I wanted to retain him or tie him down,” Harris testified.

Harris hired Dowless more than two months before he brought on campaign consultant Andy Yates, co-founder of Cornelius-based Red Dome Group. Dowless was hired more than six weeks before Mark Harris resigned his job as senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Charlotte.

‘I raised the red flags’

Harris won his rematch with Pittenger, one of just two Republicans to beat an incumbent in the primary during the 2018 election cycle. Harris won by 828 votes overall. More than half of the difference came from Bladen County’s mail-in absentee ballots where Harris won 437 votes to 17 for Pittenger.

Dowless’ program worked. His monthly fee was raised from $1,200 per month in the primary to $1,625 per month in the general election. His expenses continued to be paid by Yates’ Red Dome Group without issue, oversight or formal invoice, according to Yates’ testimony at the hearing.

John Harris, with a new baby at home and now working as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, didn’t dive into the numbers this time. He’d offered his opinion earlier.

“I raised red flags at the time the decision was made to hire Mr. Dowless. That’s what I did,” Harris said during testimony.

Mark Harris had another election to win. McCready, a Marine veteran who had served in Iraq and started a solar company upon his return to the U.S., was well-funded, and Democrats appeared poised for a wave election, typical for the out-of-power party in a president’s first mid-term. North Carolina’s 9th District was one of the party’s top targets.

In mid-September, Hurricane Florence crashed into Eastern North Carolina bringing deadly rains and flooding. Bladen County, still recovering from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, was walloped again.

The Harris campaign paid Dowless to have their campaign yard signs picked up before the hurricane and put back out after. In all, Dowless would be paid about $115,000 for work on the Harris campaign, a number that Mark Harris said he was “surprised” was so high.

Harris won an apparent victory on Nov. 7, besting McCready by 905 votes. Bladen was one of two counties that Harris won. He won absentee by mail votes in the county 420 to 258 over McCready.

One week after the election, Congressman-elect Harris attended new member orientation in Washington, D.C. He returned for a second week of orientation — picking offices, taking a freshmen class photo, getting acquainted with House procedures — after Thanksgiving.

But while he was in D.C. at the end of November, questions surfaced about the election. The previous nine-member state board twice declined to certify the election results in the 9th District. The board cited voting irregularities in Bladen and Robeson counties, the exact counties where Dowless was operating.

Dowless called Harris and told him “this is wrong. This is a set up. This was a set up. The truth will win out.”

Harris adopted a similar position, telling a Republican gathering in early February that “the Democrats and liberal media have spared no expense disparaging my good name.”

Harris reiterated in multiple media interviews — some of them taped interviews that McCready lawyers planned to show had Harris’ testimony continued — that no one warned him or raised any red flags about Dowless. Harris testified that he didn’t consider John Harris’ emails to be a warning.

Harris only learned that his oldest son would be testifying about the emails at 11 p.m. Tuesday. John Harris took the stand Wednesday. Harris’ lawyers produced the emails between father and son 15 minutes before John Harris was called to testify, though state board investigators had obtained them directly from John Harris in January.

Harris found out about John’s testimony from his younger son, Matt, in a phone call. Asked multiple times on the stand if he told anyone that John’s emails were not going to be part of the case, Mark Harris said no.

His attorneys soon asked for a recess.

When Harris returned to the stand, he said: “It’s been brought to my attention that I talked to my younger son two nights ago about the fact that I did not think John’s emails would be part of this hearing.”

Harris spent more than a week in the hospital in late January with a severe infection. Harris said Thursday he suffered two strokes during that time. He traveled to Charlotte for treatment on Wednesday night after John’s testimony and returned to Raleigh on Thursday morning for his own turn as a witness.

“Though I thought I was ready to undergo the rigors of this hearing and am getting stronger, I clearly am not,” Harris said in his final statement. “And I struggled this morning with both recall and confusion.”

With that, Harris left the hearing room, his future uncertain.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.