On a cold night in early December, Congressman Gregg Harper was trapped among the dozens of Mississippi-bound travelers who stood shoulder to shoulder, packed in a shuttle bus, on the tarmac of Reagan National Airport in sight of Washington, D.C.
It was the night before President Donald Trump was scheduled to speak at the grand opening of two new history museums for the state’s bicentennial and the day parts of Mississippi saw more snow than had been seen in decades.
Some of the travelers, who waited about 30 minutes to exit the bus and board the only direct flight of the day headed to Jackson, didn’t squander the opportunity to buttonhole Harper with questions and suggestions about tax reform, health care reform and Common Core national education standards.
One Mississippian even lamented “the sad realities of the world” to Harper, pointing out that iPhone’s Siri wouldn’t tell him who Jesus Christ was but would detail the life of the prophet Muhammad.
Harper, known for his charisma with constituents, uncomfortably smiled when he wasn’t dancing around questions from at times pushy constituents.
Such is the life of the five-term representative: long periods of travel between Washington and Jackson, short hours with family on weekends and the fast pace of the political grind on Capitol Hill.
“We have been contemplating for almost two years when it would be our time not to run again, and after spending time over Christmas and New Year’s with my family, we made the very difficult decision to say that 10 years will be long enough,” Harper said in a statement on Thursday.
For Harper, that political grind has considerably accelerated in recent weeks. Harper, who had for years sat relatively low in the ranks of the Republican leadership, was appointed chairman of the House Administration committee in December 2016. As more claims of sexual harassment in Congress have surfaced, his committee has become the focus of national headlines.
Consistently pressed with questions from reporters in recent weeks, he has had to address reports that the House has secretly used taxpayer money to settle harassment claims. With the newfound platform, Harper has decried using public funds for settlements and has called for review and reform in handling harassment.
And in December, he was appointed chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which has been working to address the opioid epidemic.
In an interview with Mississippi Today in his D.C. office in December, Harper discussed the current state of politics in Washington, particularly in the era of President Donald Trump.
“I don’t think (the Trump election) changed the work that we’re doing, but it certainly changes the dynamics some,” Harper said.
“When I first started, the Democrats controlled everything. Now this is my first term where Republicans control everything,” he said. “There comes an extra responsibility. And it comes with its own difficulties.”
Being away from family is tough for most members of Congress, but especially so for Harper. He and his wife Sidney’s first child, Livingston, now 28, was born with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic condition similar to autism that causes learning and behavioral challenges.
As the congressman’s political career has evolved over the past 10 years, Sidney Harper has assumed the duties of caring for their son.
The fifth-term congressman is also facing the reality of becoming a grandfather for the first time. The couple’s daughter, Maggie, and her husband are expecting their first child.
One legacy he’ll leave in Washington is an internship program he created for students with intellectual disabilities. He noted with pride to Mississippi Today that more than 150 House and Senate offices have participated in the program.
When he started as chairman of House Administration in January 2017, he directed the staff to bring on one of those interns full time.
“He’s working full time, getting full time pay for full time work, and it’s changed his life,” Harper told Mississippi Today in December. “More importantly, it changes the life of all our staff that are around someone with special needs.”
The surprise announcement that Harper won’t seek re-election throws a wrench in the already dramatic short term political landscape in Mississippi. Sen. Roger Wicker, the state’s junior senator, faces a re-election bid this year, and colleagues of Sen. Thad Cochran have said privately that he is expected to retire this year due to health concerns.
Harper had been widely considered a favorite to fill Cochran’s seat should a vacancy occur, but several people close to Gov. Phil Bryant, who would make the appointment, have told Mississippi Today in recent days that Harper is not being seriously considered for the spot.
The night Cochran defeated Chris McDaniel in the controversial 2014 Republican runoff, Harper introduced Cochran to the gathered crowd of supporters. Harper very publicly supported the veteran senator’s campaign, even knocking on doors days before the wild runoff election.
Harper, who was expected to run unopposed this year, was first elected to the House in 2008, holding off a crowded Republican primary field and coasting to a victory in the general election. Every two years since then, no general election challenger came closer than 25 points to knocking off the incumbent congressman.
Before he was elected to the House, Harper was a practicing attorney, He served as a prosecutor in Brandon and Richland, and he was chairman of the Rankin County Republican Party for seven years.