A Conversation with Morgan Harper

On her time at the CFPB, her vision for the economy, and challenging the establishment

Primaries for Progress had the opportunity to speak with Morgan Harper, who is challenging Rep. Joyce Beatty from the left in Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District. Harper, a former advisor to Richard Cordray during his time as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was endorsed by Justice Democrats last week (after we interviewed her, which we did on August 1.) This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Nick:

How's the campaign going so far?

Morgan Harper:

The campaign is going really well. We launched on July 1st, and you never know with these things. It's a little bit of a leap of faith, but we've been getting a lot of good feedback, a lot of people that are interested in learning more about the campaign and my story and motivations for wanting to [run] and our policy ideas. So yeah, no complaints so far. I could use a little bit more sleep. That's always a good thing. I've just been really overwhelmed by the amount of interest. And I think it demonstrates that people here and in Ohio 3 are really hungry for stronger voices that are going to advocate for the policies that will actually help working people get ahead.

Nick:

Well, I'm glad to hear. The thing about sleep is, I think, something that every candidate and every campaign staffer would [say].

Morgan Harper:

Yes, exactly. Yeah. And some days are better than others, but currently I'm trying to get through a lot of thank you notes [...] for people who have donated. So that ends up getting pushed to the end of the day. And then...I'm like, why is it 1 AM and I'm still working on this? But anyway, yeah. Yeah.

Nick:

So you worked at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. For readers who don't know what that is, it was Elizabeth Warren's idea, essentially. And it was created sort of as a backstop or a bit of a watchdog to just make sure that financial companies are playing by the rules and not trying to rip people off. It was created by Dodd-Frank, and it's now kind of a gutted husk of what it used to be because of the Trump administration. But you worked at it while it was still working.

Morgan Harper:

Able to do things.

Nick:

Yeah. While it wasn't run by Wall Street. So what did you do at the CFPB? Describe your job, tell me what you did.

Morgan Harper:

Yeah. And I'll give a little context about the bureau's creation, too. The idea was part of the cause of the financial crisis was that a lot of the authority for overseeing financial products, particularly those that focused on consumers like mortgages, mortgage servicing, were scattered throughout many agencies. And so Elizabeth Warren's idea was to bring a lot of those different jurisdictions into one place that was solely focused on financial products that target consumers. In doing that, you would be able to have an agency that was really an expert in those financial markets and able to best protect them for working people. It's a two-sided thing, right? When the markets are working well, it can also help everyone, in addition to consumers. The companies are doing better, and also working people are protected against predatory lending and other harms that could come from nefarious activity by companies.

I started there in 2013 in the Office of Regulations, which was in the division called Research Markets and Regulation, RMR. And that's one of the core policymaking divisions of the bureau. So in the Office of Regulations, I was on the Prepaid Card rulemaking team, which was responsible for regulating the prepaid card market, which is a banking alternative. You've probably seen those in drug stores. Prepaid cards offer a different financial product or banking alternative for...a person that isn't able to qualify for a bank account or doesn't want to pay fees associated with a traditional bank account. But it hadn't been regulated. So bringing some regulation and also more clarity around the fees for that market.

I was tasked on that rulemaking teams and then eventually moved up to become one of the directors senior advisors. And we sort of split the portfolio of markets that the bureau regulated into two. And so, I helped to oversee the policy development for payday lending, consumer reporting, mortgage servicing, et cetera.

The CFPB is an example of what the federal government at its best can be when given the authority to really work hard to protect all of us, and has a workforce that is made up of dedicated people who could be anywhere in the world, but they've decided to be in the government applying their skill sets. And it was a variety of skill sets. And there's still a variety of skill sets that are there today among economists, lawyers, advocates that work in one institution to bring all of those skill sets to bear, to develop regulation that's going to best serve consumers. The beauty of the bureau, and especially that role as being one of the director's advisors, is that you got to see all of the different tools that the bureau had in its toolkit with enforcement being able to prosecute or sue companies when they take advantage of consumers and get remediation.

So we were able to get $12 billion back in consumer's pockets. The division that I was first in, Research Markets and Regulations, bringing lawyers, rule writers together with economists on to develop really strong policy and also the markets office that brought in people who are very familiar with the industries themselves. But applying those skill sets within the bureau. And then you know other offices have people with different skill sets as well.

Morgan Harper:

To me, it was a great example of, like I said, when the federal government is operating with a strong mandate and given the resources to actually execute on that mandate, you see the results, $12 billion.

Nick:

That's definitely a very impressive figure. While you were advising the Director [Richard Cordray, who later left his job to run for governor of Ohio] are there any specific cases or specific issues you advised him on that you'd like to talk about?

Morgan Harper:

I was part of the team that was working on payday lending regulations. And you know, the payday lending market is one of the most notorious for taking advantage of working people and charging very, very high interest rates for small dollar loans that pretty much they know going in and people won't be able to repay. And then people get stuck in debt traps, interest rates and all of that that they can't really support, which seems particularly unfair when it's a very small amount of money to start. That was one area that I was focused on. Mortgage servicing, another area where there's a lot of a lack of sophisticated technology that leads to certain consumers getting charged for things that didn't apply to their accounts and that kind of thing. So really pushing the industry to update the technology to make sure that people are getting charged the right amounts.

The list goes on and on. There are a lot of issues that we were doing at the bureau. But I think the overall message and the work that we were doing is we are being very, very aggressive about developing policy that we knew would have an impact, and top of mind was that consumer that might not have all of the time in the world to read all of the fine print and just needs these industries to operate from a fair place to start. And so, really trying to have regulations in place that represents that consumer's perspective.

Another key part of the bureau is the consumer complaint division where the bureau is collecting information in a very user friendly way. People could submit complaints about issues they had had within the debt collection market or from a payday lender, unexpected interest rates or fees that they were being charged. We were able to incorporate that input through the complaints into the policy development process. That's a little unique, right? Because usually we all know [in] Washington, corporations are able to fund themselves to do all of their advocacy themselves through lobbyists and set up meetings and all of that. But it's pretty tough for the average person to make a trip to Washington and have their view represented. So, being able to consolidate consumer complaints and...analyze the data in such a way that it is actually influencing the policy making process and given equal weight as the corporations who might be able to afford lobbyists. That was a really key thing driving policy development at the bureau as well.

Nick:

Okay, so you are, you're making policy decisions based on the actual experiences of consumers who felt that they had been... That they had been wronged or cheated by a company?

Morgan Harper:

Exactly, yeah. You don't have to imagine these things. We were getting complaints from people all over the country, including consumers who live here in Ohio, in the third district, that felt that--not just felt [cheated] but were cheated. That Included seniors who had pensions that they were relying on to support themselves towards the end of their lives. And they were getting scammed out of turning over the full value of those pensions for a short term financial amount or gain, but then not realizing that they actually had signed away that fixed income that would have been coming for the rest of their lives.

There's all sorts of different tactics that are used by companies that are trying to take advantage of people and cheat them out of their money. And yeah, we were able to hear from consumers directly to inform the policy making policy making process and also the enforcement strategy that could be used to try to target some of these scams that could be underway and make sure that it's not easy to rip people off.

Nick:

So this is sort of, I guess a more specific question, but you mentioned earlier, a few minutes back, that you worked on regulating the prepaid card industry, which is for people who... which is primarily used by people who either don't have access or don't want to actually open up a bank account. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand [D-N.Y.] has proposed [postal banking], and other high-profile Democrats have also supported it. Take the postal service and use it to provide low cost banking to everybody. Do you think that's a good idea? Do you think that approach would need modification, do you see a role for the government in banking?

Morgan Harper:

I think it's something worth exploring...sometimes [the] devil's in the details and how it gets executed. But I'm really supportive of just getting people access to the services they need in the banking sector without having to pay a ton of fees up front to do that, just to have a bank hold their money. So, yeah, that's a proposal that's out there. Interesting idea. And generally, I'm supportive of trying to get people access to services without having to pay disproportionate fees for those services.

And also I would say, often, just from a proportionality perspective, some of those fees can hurt those that are earning lower incomes the most. So making sure that just because...you're earning a lower income, they are not able to access basic banking services. And I think that was one of the positive elements of the prepaid card market--when the fees are clear.

Nick:

They're often not.

Morgan Harper:

Yeah. Yeah. But you know, even within the prepaid industry now, some of those cards have lowered their fees or they don't have a fee just for having...a monthly balance fee, for example. So, some of that has been worked out with in the market as well.

Nick:

All right. So I think we're going to...move to some different topics now.

Morgan Harper:

Okay. And we're going deep on CFPB.

Nick:

I mean, it was an illuminating conversation, so--

Morgan Harper:

I know, and I can talk about it forever. So yeah, you're going to have to cut me off.

Nick:

That's a good thing! So, some more stuff on economic, financial policy. You've said you support universal income. To you, does that mean universal basic income?

Morgan Harper:

Yeah. To me the idea there is that we shouldn't have people or families that, because of a $400 shortfall in a month, they are facing things like eviction that caused a financial spiral, right? That, to me, is crazy. And so, being able to make sure that there's enough money that that kind of a spiral doesn't occur for such a small amount of a shortfall is common sense. I think it should be included in a package of other ideas around financial stability and housing stability to support working people, even if they're not able to earn an income that would support housing, for example, and the cost of whatever market they're in. But yeah, I think it is absolutely crazy that $400 could send a family into a financial spiral and we need to do something about that. Particularly when we're finding that a lot of people are not able to have access to jobs that are providing enough money to meet those basic needs.

Nick:

You've also called for a jobs guarantee coupled with a living wage. So, if in your ideal world, the government is guaranteeing a job with a living wage, do you think a universal income is still necessary and worth fighting for or--

Morgan Harper:

Yeah. I mean, because my view on the jobs guarantee, if you're ready, willing, able to work, you should be able to have a job that will support... That will provide a living wage to support meeting basic needs. That might not be possible for everyone. And I think we need to think of other strategies and supporting people's ability to meet those basic needs. But yeah, I think it's more of a package of policies that I'm advocating for.

Nick:

Okay. Okay. So for people who might not be able to work, you see it as providing more of a safety net.

Morgan Harper:

Mhm-Hmm (positive).

Nick:

Okay. On the topic of a living wage, how high do you think a living wage is? The common refrain is $15 an hour. But Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib suggested $20 an hour a few weeks ago. Do you think it's something else? Because I know that there have been studies that have come out that in a lot of the more expensive metropolitan areas, even $15 an hour isn’t enough. What does the living wage look like to you?

Morgan Harper:

A living wage, to me, means that you're making enough money. Look, first off, we know what people generally need, what we all need to be okay. Stable housing, access to quality healthcare in case we have medical problems, and enough money to buy food and all of those things. And so, a living wage would be enough to support meeting those basic needs. Now, take, for example, here in Franklin County, where the third district is located. We kind of know that you need to be making about or more than $17 an hour to support rent for a two bedroom apartment, let's say. So I don't think $15 is going to cut it if that's not enough money here to even afford housing if you need a two bedroom place, which you probably do if you're more than one person or have a child or whatever. And so we need to be looking at something that's higher than that, that's going to allow people to meet those basic needs.

Nick:

Okay. I think one more, a very specific policy question. On your website, you mentioned asthma as a problem in your district due, in part, to pollution.

Morgan Harper:

Mhm-hmm (positive).

Nick:

How do you think polluters should be handled by the federal government? Do you think they should be required to pay back the communities they've harmed? And if so, how?

Morgan Harper:

Well, I've included the asthma stats and then also having a focus on climate in the platform because I think we need to be planning for now, and also the next 40 years and what we're going to do about the continuing issues that we're seeing as a result of pollution. And pretty much, you know, having policies, especially now in the federal government that are not holding people accountable for the impact that they're having on the environment. And there's an opportunity here through things like the Green New Deal to really advance policies that are going to rein those people in, from bad actors that are contributing to pollution. But also plan for the future and create jobs that are going to be high paying and mitigate the effects of climate change and get us off of fossil fuels. I'm more focused from the platform perspective and being kind of forward looking. But I definitely think those that are contributing to pollution, and certainly those that are running afoul of existing laws should be held accountable.

Nick:

All right. So now I think we're going to move to more national focused questions. So, first, I guess not really national, but what differences do you see between yourself and Representative [Joyce] Beatty?

Morgan Harper:

I obviously get asked this question a lot. I really look towards the state of the communities in the third district. We see that there are people, and a growing percentage of people in certain ways, that are finding it difficult to get by. We're seeing...there are a lot of young people that live in the third district and they are feeling the affects of student debt, tuition fees, all of that. We're looking at poverty rates that are over 20%, wage growth that has been closer to the minimum wage here, around eight-something an hour, and people not earning enough money to get by, and also straddled with either present medical costs or the fear of some kind of medical emergency that will derail them financial aid. There's a lot to do here to make sure that the third district is a place that works for everyone. We're also seeing that in other parts of the country. I'm representing a new generation of bold leadership that's gonna fight for the policies that will address some of those issues.

Nick:

So impeachment's a pretty hot topic. As of [August 1st], a majority of House Democrats now support it. Your opponent is among them. Where do you stand on impeachment and…could you explain your stance on that?

Morgan Harper:

Yeah, I think we should impeach. I support pursuing impeachment because there have been violations of the law by the President.

Nick:

That's a nice and refreshingly simple answer. No 18 dimensional chess about what will please pundits.

House leadership has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks. I mean, there’s the fighting with AOC and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley. Nancy Pelosi is very much against impeachment [even though her caucus is not.] Do you think all of this, the criticizing of progressive women of color and fighting with the Congressional Progressive Caucus' leaders, Representatives [Pramila] Jayapal [D-Wash.] and [Mark] Pocan [D-Wis.], do you think that's indicative of a broader problem with House leadership?

Morgan Harper:

Well, what I would say there is, I think there is room for new voices and not only room, a necessity for new voices in Congress that are going to present bold ideas that will help working people in this country, and my specific focus in the third district of Ohio. And to not make room for those voices, to not take those voices seriously, that's a problem. I'm supportive of people that are coming to the table with working people first and foremost and not beholden to corporate interests. I think it's beholden on all of us to take people who are putting themselves out there, including myself, seriously and make room for that. It makes all of us better and ultimately will help to advance the policies that we know will have an impact and make us healthier, make the environment better, make us have enough money to house ourselves, feed ourselves, support our families to be a country that works for everyone. So that's where I stand on that.

Nick:

All right. The DCCC has implemented a blacklist of any vendors or any vendors who work for a primary challenger, so anyone who's running in a Democratic primary against an incumbent Democrat. That means anyone who works on fundraising, or does polling, or does ads for a challenger cannot get any contracts with the DCCC, which can be very damaging to their business. Other House challengers have said it's been a significant struggle for their campaign. Marie Newman has said that vendors have dropped her campaign. We've interviewed Crisanta Duran in Colorado's 1st and Lindsey Boylan in New York's 10th, and they've also both said that they've gotten a chilly reception from vendors specifically because of this blacklist. Has that affected your campaign so far?

Morgan Harper:

Yeah. We had trouble getting a compliance firm to sign on board to make sure we are in compliance with federal election campaign law. Sometimes hard to know whether that's at a DCCC blacklist or generally just nerves around being associated with someone who's a primary challenger and working a little bit outside of the machine here. What I'd say there, and actually one thing that's been really cool is there are a lot of vendors and a lot of different people that are emerging specifically to support progressive challengers. It makes me hopeful, in a way, because it's a sign that our generation is prepared and has the skillset to really take back control of politics and make it work for normal people and we have the resources to support each other in doing that. So, no. I mean, the DCCC blacklist is certainly not helpful for this kind of effort, but at the same time it's not determining. We can still do this.

Nick:

As you mentioned, there are some vendors who have stepped up specifically to support primary challengers. Do you see yourself and your campaign as part of a broader movement of primary challengers across the country like those vendors are specifically trying to work for? I mean, still specific to your district, but do you think it's part of a broader movement, nationally, of progressive primary challengers?

Morgan Harper:

I think what we're seeing and let you know what I feel I'm a part of is our generation deciding that we want politics to be free of the influence of corporate interests and working for regular people and all of us. We are facing a world 40 years out that is looking very different from the ones that our parents grew up in. We know that we need political leadership to be responsive to that. So, I am supportive of other people that are on... that are willing to put themselves out there and fight for these things that will help all of us ultimately, across the board from young to old. We're seeing that leadership here in the third district as well. So, yeah. It's a time for bold ideas and bold leadership. And I'm excited to be a part of it.

Nick:

Did anyone try to dissuade you from running against an incumbent?

Morgan Harper:

Well, I did hear from people that considering something like this is a crazy idea. But I know, and where I'm coming from with this is that there are policies that are not... There are needs that are not being addressed here in the third district. People not being able to earn enough money, get affordable housing. We're not seeing leadership that's speaking up in a bold way to advocate for the policies that will do something. And I just couldn't let that rest.

So, yeah, I mean there are few people, I guess, that you would need that would be like...[in a mocking tone] “What a great idea. You're going to launch a political campaign all on your own.” But the times demand it.


You can visit Morgan Harper’s website, morganharper.org, or check out her Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.