Harris May Be One-of-a-Kind Mayor

Republican brings unique background to mayoral position that could be a first in the nation.

isn't a big fan of campaigning. But now he can at least enjoy the result of his efforts.

Days after beating Democratic incumbent Nelson Vaughan to become Chatham Borough's next mayor, Harris just can't stop smiling.

"It's because it's such a relief not to have to campaign," he said. "It's time-consuming, and I didn't get into this for politics."

However, Harris, 60, did enjoy meeting many of the borough residents as he went door-to-door campaigning.

"You have nice conversations with people," he said. "Most people are very happy to talk. ... You get some people who have good ideas, you know, a few people who have problems that maybe have been overlooked. So it's fun."

A majority of Chatham voters agreed. With a total turn-out, including mail-in ballots, of 36.89 percent, mayor with 1,211 votes to 889.

Denis Dison, the vice president of communications for The Victory Fund, believes Harris is likely the first openly gay, black Republican to be elected mayor in the country.

"We could not think of another," Dison said. "There have been a few openly gay African Americans who have been elected mayors in their town, but not Republicans.

"We have a very knowledgeable board, and they could not think of another example where this has happened," Dison said.

The Victory Fund raises campaign funds for openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) political candidates. The organization was founded in 1991. the group endorsed in the 2011 election season.

Leanna Brown, a borough resident and former state senator, agreed with Dison's assessment. "I think it speaks very well of the borough," she said.

"I think we've gone through an interesting time," she said. "There've always been people who have made their sexual preferences known, and people didn't care. If 30 years ago people were making a big deal about [sexuality], Bruce wouldn't have made it.

"But I think it would have been a bigger deal that he is a person of color. Historically, Chatham has not had a large African American population. ... Today, I think you could count on one hand the number of black families," Brown said.

According to the the borough contained just 89 back residents among a total population of 8,962.

But Harris never intended to be a pioneer.

"I am not doing this to be a trailblazer. ... I never think of it that way," he said. "I just remember that when I first moved [to Chatham], I woke up and I thought, 'Oh, it's so nice and quiet here.'"

Harris was raised in Iowa, the oldest of 12 siblings. He moved to the borough from Boston in 1981, into an Elmwood Avenue home that he continues to make changes to and improvements.

"People ask me, 'Why do you do that? Why don't you just move?' I say, 'Well, I love where I live. I love Chatham, and I love my neighborhood,'" Harris said.

An attorney, Harris holds an MBA and has 15 years of corporate experience. He began volunteering in municipal government 13 years ago, and was selected to fill a seat on the council vacated by Dick Plambeck when he was elected to mayor. Harris was re-elected to the council in 2005 and 2008. This was his first mayoral campaign.

Dison said Harris' election says something significant about the Borough of Chatham.

"It says they're more interested in the candidate's qualifications than about their sexual orientation," he said. "It speaks to the openness and the fairness of a community when that happens."

Chatham Borough has had numerous Republican mayors in the past, but Harris is still the borough's first black mayor and the first openly gay mayor.

"When you see someone who can speak not just to the gay community, but the African American community and the Republican Party, that's a powerful thing," Dison said. "It speaks of the acceptance of gays and lesbians in public life."

Harris said in his 30 years of living in Chatham, he has "always felt welcomed here and at home, and I've felt a member of the community. So I don't really see it as Chatham making a statement at all, other than that they're continuing a tradition of recognizing people who have contributed to the community. ... And I think all of the other stuff is, who cares about that?"

Editor's note: Harris, as the longest-serving member of the Chatham Borough Council, is currently serving as acting mayor in the wake of Vaughan's resignation from the position Wednesday and the absence of Council President James Lonergan. When he goes to Iowa Saturday for a family emergency, the acting mayor will be Council Member James Collander.

Chris Antoniou November 14, 2011 at 05:11 PM
I think all of us who were blessed to be Bruce's law school classmates would agree that he is a mensch . . . a real jewel! Congratulations, Bruce -- I am so happy to hear of your wonderful news and, importantly, I am pleased for your community, as I know that you will serve all of them very well with your thoughtful, intelligent and open-minded leadership! Best, Chris Antoniou
Alberta Treadway November 14, 2011 at 07:41 PM
I am so glad for him. It is rare you meet a person of color/Gay and a Republican! Republicans don't believe in equal right for gays. So I think this is a very wonderful thing to happen to him. I pray a Republican does NOT get President, make it impossible for this town to go forward from here! Talk of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell an the rights afforded Gays now in the Republican party makes me wonder where he an others fit into that Party.
llbxy November 14, 2011 at 09:01 PM
"Republicans don't believe in equal right for gays." - what a sweeping and inaccurate generalization THAT is, and the rest of your post doesn't even make sense.
D. Vincent November 15, 2011 at 09:50 AM
The FACT that Bruce Harris is an honest, warm, wonderful, intelligent, and gifted individual who will truly represent the interests of all Chatham Borough residents is what won him the election. The color of his skin, like his sexual orientation are completely irrelevant to all those who truly know and respect him. Congratulations to Bruce, Marc, and all the people of Chatham Borough!
caryn November 15, 2011 at 11:37 AM
Spot on, D.Vincent!


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