It was 2014 and the first time attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC got a load of former Miss America Erika Harold who was invited to address the attendees as of one of the most promising young conservatives in the country. She is a black female lawyer from Illinois who had in 2003 been chosen Miss America. She had entered the Miss America pageant hoping to win enough money to go to Harvard Law School and did just that.
She ran into a little trouble along the way, though, because the politically correct folks who ran the pageant were less than comfortable with her pro-life religious views and tried to get her to tone them down. She didn’t and came across then as she does today; a young lady proud of her background, accomplishments and principles.
New to politics at the time, she ran for Congress as an underdog twice in Republican primaries in her native Illinois. She lost both times and went back to practicing law, her family and continuing her work as a proudly conservative criminal justice reform advocate and member of the late Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Board.
But Erika Harold is back and while no longer an outsider, until recently still an underdog. Earlier this year she announced her candidacy for Illinois attorney general and her willingness to take on incumbent Democrat Lisa Madigan, who no one really believed could be defeated by Erika or anyone else. She was the only potential candidate willing to step up as what party leaders saw as a sacrificial lamb and they embraced her.
But politics is unpredictable these days and as the leaves began to fall, her “unbeatable” opponent dropped out, which will at least give the former Miss America an outside shot at winning. Other Republicans are reportedly reconsidering the earlier decision to pass on the race, but Ms. Harold has already wrapped up a good many endorsements and should win the nomination.
If she does, she will be a different kind of Illinois candidate; an attractive, intelligent and conservative black woman who, if she can raise the funds she’ll need, might just have a chance to win and go after the corruption that continues to plague Illinois in part because the state’s machine politicians have always been able to count on prosecutors, elected and appointed, to have their backs. She could change all that as an elected attorney general with ties not to the machine, but to a diverse electorate.
She could also emerge as a national spokeswoman for conservative criminal justice reform, a movement that has found traction in Republican states as diverse as Mississippi, Texas and Kansas with outspoken advocates like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Ms. Harold has not only served on the Board of The Prison Fellowship, but as a volunteer who has worked inside and outside of Illinois prisons to develop programs that will guarantee better treatment of those incarcerated while inside and help them reintegrate into society once they’ve served their time.
She has done more than just talk about her beliefs, and her work in this arena cannot help but give her entree to voters who might otherwise dismiss any Republican candidate as someone who doesn’t care about them and their problems.
Ms. Harold didn’t start out as a conservative, but her study of history, politics and the constitution while a student at the University of Illinois led her to conservatism and the GOP. Her studies of the American founding were crucial and today she describes herself as a “constitutional conservative.” She described her political awakening during that CPAC appearance.
“I recognize,” she told conference attendees, “that college is not the place where most people become conservatives. I was studying political science and American history and had a chance to study our nation’s foundational documents for myself, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers I began to marvel at the genius of our Constitution. I wasn’t seeking to find a political philosophy. All of a sudden I realized I had one. I was a conservative.”
And Erika Harold remains one today. She is part black, part white and part Native American, but all conservative. She’s survived ridicule, made her own way in the world and gotten up off the floor whenever she’s been knocked down. She shouldn’t be underestimated.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large at The Washington Times.