When Michael Harris walked into the County Times office on K Street the other day, he reminded this reporter that there’s another big and provocative election year coming up in 2022 — on a significant local level.
There’s a statewide Primary Election set for June 7, and a General Election set for Nov. 8. Several key Merced County positions will be on those ballots, including the Sheriff, the District Attorney, Assessor, and two Board of Supervisor positions. Some local state and congressional representative seats will be decided, as well as a couple seats on the Merced City Council.
All this, and the new Redistricting Process is already in full swing, with the county establishing its new district boundaries for voters just last week. The state is expected to deliver its district plans soon, and the city still has a way to go to finalize its map. Refashioned district boundaries will put a lot of different things into play, to say the least.
Behind the scenes, it’s safe to say, the election season has already started, and it’s heating up a bit. However, it’s not entirely clear how many of those key positions held by incumbents will end up being competitive. The initial Signatures In-Lieu filing period for state and county candidates starts soon after New Year’s Day, while candidates for City Council, for example, do not have to face the Primary in June, and can join the race later in the summer for the General.
And that’s why it was a little surprising when Harris appeared to say he wanted to announce his intention to run for the Merced City Council District 4 seat that will be left open by Councilman Kevin Blake, who terms out at the end of 2022.
It’s not totally uncommon to announce a run for council this early in the game, but it is pretty early, especially when considering the city’s ongoing work to refigure its map of districts.
District 4 has been located mostly in central-east Merced, with its “current” boundaries stretching north to a portion of Yosemite Avenue that’s located east of Parsons Avenue. It includes the neighborhoods east of G Street in the areas of Olive Avenue, Alexander Avenue and the Ragsdale sector. And it also features the Old Merced neighborhoods of 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th streets, south of Bear Creek.
Harris says he wants to get an early start in setting up a committee, exploring fundraising opportunities and introducing himself to community members and groups. He also wants to establish his “intent to run” for the District 4 seat BEFORE the redistricting process ends, and with some interesting reason.
We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, who exactly is Michael Harris?
“What I bring to a position on the City Council is a history of being able to reach consensus on things, and understand somebody else’s point of view, and work toward where we can come together,” Harris told the Times. “We may not each get a 100 percent of what we want, but there will be an improvement, rather than just turning our backs, and saying, ‘Well, if it’s not my way, then forget it.’ [Instead] we keep talking until we come up with something. …
“I don’t come in with a platform that says this is the way I am, and this is how I’m going to act. You have to come in with the flexibility to listen to other people, and do what’s best for the city, and what’s best for your district.”
Harris currently serves as the chair of two important city panels — the Planning Commission and the Tax Transparency Commission. He’s retired with a solid career resume that features a strong background in law enforcement, emergency medical service, and corporate consulting.
The 67-year-old candidate is a native of Austin, Texas, but spent most of his formative years in Westchester County, New York. After graduating from high school in 1971, he joined the Air Force and became an electronic communications and cryptographic equipment technician. He graduated with honors from the U.S. Air Force School of Applied Aerospace Sciences, and spent 8 years serving the country and traveling all over the Pacific.
Harris spent the next decade working as a network and systems consultant for some major corporate firms, mostly back east in the Washington, D.C., and Delaware regions. However, he’s always been service-minded and after he signed up as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic for a rural Virginia region where he was living at the time, he discovered what he really wanted was to pursue a career in emergency medical services (EMS). So he gave up that bigger paycheck, and set his sights on advance life support systems and EMS management.
He moved to Ventura to take a paramedic manager position and eventually became the EMS Chief for the city’s fire department. After a few years, he moved to Alameda County and become the region’s EMS director. That’s when he met a top Merced County official who encouraged him to give this area a try — especially since the Riggs Ambulance EMS contract was up for bid in 2001 — the first time since 1948 — and Harris could possible help out.
Harris like the idea of living in a smaller town, and he ended up helping Riggs secure a 10-year contract with the county. In turn, Riggs held on to Harris, who became the vice president and general manager of the ambulance service and helped reshape the direction of the company.
He did that for about six years, and meanwhile, he also married an Atwater teacher, named Shelly. She’s the daughter of Norm Rolfe of Rolfe Construction in Atwater. So that helped keep Harris in town, and then yet again, he made another major career move after collaborating with local law enforcement on EMS training.
The Sheriff’s Department actively recruited Harris for a more “close up” position as an EMS deputy assigned to the SWAT team. That eventually led to Harris becoming a full-fledged peace officer. Again, he moved up to key positions in the department over a period of eight years, including within the Coroner’s Office, the ID section, and even as a sergeant on patrol.
And then, he had a heart attack.
That was back in 2013. Harris recovered OK, but he decided it was time to retire and pursue volunteer community service. He has spent the past three years on the Planning Commission, as well as the Tax Transparency Commission.
Harris said he told Councilman Blake about his intent to run for the council seat, and Blake gave him his blessings.
However, because of the ongoing redistricting process, it’s possible that Harris, who lives in the Bear Creek area of the current District 4, might me zoned out with a change to the boundaries.
The catch is that Merced’s redistricting committee and the City Council are prohibited from changing district boundaries based on political decisions. Boundaries have to follow population, neighborhood unity and natural barrier guidelines. So Harris thinks it’s a good idea to put his intent to run out there in the public sphere before those final boundary decisions are made. He also told the Times, that if he found himself suddenly qualified to run for another council district position that’s on the ballot, he would consider that option as well.
Though the council positions are not considered partisan political positions, Harris says he can see some political leanings and divisions on the current council, and he hopes to enter City Hall as a force for unity.
“I’m a conservative with a social conscious,” he said. “I believe in local government. I believe in thinking globally and acting locally. I think that issues like homelessness are never going to be solved at the federal or state level.”
He also added: “Districting was a good thing [for city representatives], but you can’t be so focused on your district that you lose sight of the needs of the city itself.”
“The city is going through some growing pains, but that’s a good thing. … It needs more civility on the council. It needs more coherent discussions with a goal of reaching consensus — not with a goal of getting everything each individual council member wants, but coming to a point where they can say: ‘This is good for the city. It might not be everything I want, or what my district wants, but there’s something that we are getting, and it’s good for the city.’”
Harris said he has seen “flashes” of teamwork on the current council, but “there’s too much arguing, and posturing, and my-way-or-the-highway stuff.”
Harris said the issue of affordable housing opportunities in Merced is at the top of his list of priorities, followed by homelessness and housing availability in general. He points to a big affordable housing project proposal that was recently recommended for approval on the Planning Commission that he chairs. He said it was a plan to construct 66 multi-family units within a three-story building on a 1.54-acre parcel located on the west side of Park Avenue, near Alexander Avenue.
“Between myself and my fellow commissioners at the Planning Commission, we have done everything we can to facilitate these projects and make them approvable so that contractors and developers can start turning dirt,” he said.
One thing is for sure. It’s a good thing, candidates are stepping up for leadership positions in Merced, at a time when the war on the covid virus is still raging, and when debate on issues concerning housing, homelessness, support for law enforcement and equity in the community appear to be at an all time high.
Stay tuned. The 2022 election season is about to get started