By STEVEN NALLEY
U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper emphasized the importance of building connections, understanding history and remaining positive in the face of gridlock during his speech for Mississippi State University’s Morris W.H. Collins Speaker Series Thursday at Mitchell Memorial Library’s John Grisham Room.
The series is named for Morris W.H. “Bill” Collins, the first director of MSU’s Stennis Institute of Government, which puts on the speaker series together with the Stennis Center for Public Service, the Stennis-Montgomery Association and MSU Library Dean Frances Coleman. MSU University Relations Director Sid Salter introduced Harper, and he said he was proud to know Harper both professionally and personally.
“Gregg Harper has become part of the Republican leadership team in the U.S. House of Representatives. Over the last couple of terms, (he) has been in a position to exert extraordinary influence over the workings of the House despite the fact that he has not yet accrued the kind of seniority that a Sonny Montgomery or a John Stennis got over the course of their time,” Salter said. “But, give him time. I’ve come to know Gregg in a different guise, as a husband and as a father. He has also dedicated himself to the MSU family. When he says he’s a Bulldog, I don’t think he’s campaigning. I think that’s where his heart is.”
One of Harper’s key talking points was the value of historical resources such as MSU’s Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library.
“Who would have thought we’d ever get Ulysses S. Grant’s papers?” Harper asked. “I thought the North won the war, but we got the papers. If you haven’t spent some time there, you should.”
For students interested in pursuing political careers of their own, Harper said it was important to build connections early and hold on to them.
As a senior at Mississippi College, he said, he worked on a campaign to elect Charles W. Pickering to the U.S. Senate, only for Pickering to lose the Republican nomination to Thad Cochran. Years later, he said, Pickering was a key supporter in Harper’s own run for Congress.
“Maintain those contacts; that will be very important,” Harper said. “The people you come to know, you will see them again. I do believe God puts people in your lives that will impact you in the future.”
Harper said he acknowledges the discontent in the media and the public resulting from gridlock in Congress between Democrats and Republicans, and he responded to it with humor.
“Congress is not really popular right now,” Harper said. “You know where the word ‘politics’ comes from? It comes from the words ‘poly,’ meaning ‘many,’ and ‘ticks,’ meaning ‘bloodsucking insects.’”
Harper said there is still reason for hope because there are some things Democrats and Republicans can agree on, such as helping people with special needs and their families. Before he went to Congress, he said, his law office had a program that hired students from Pearl High School with special needs part-time. When he went to Congress, he said, he found no such program — only an internship program for typically-developing college students.
“I wound up on the Committee on House Administration, which has some responsibilities for those types of things. We started a pilot program with five offices, working with George Mason University, who’s now in their 10th or 11th year of a program called Mason Life for students with intellectual disabilities to go to college there,” Harper said. “We started bringing those students in, (and for) many of them, it was the first time they had ever been interviewed for a job. They came in very nervous but by the time they were through, they were doing things you would have never imagined they could have done.”
Harper said he is proud to now have this program in its third year, with 20-25 offices in both houses of Congress participating. At least one student has already earned a full-time job through the program, he said, and both Democrats and Republicans participate.
“Guess how much it cost you taxpayers?” Harper asked. “Nothing. Not everything has to be partisan. Not everything has to cost a boatload of money. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. I just want to say, particularly to people who are younger than me, don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t do something that matters.”