The Voters' Advocate, continued
"I think Scott's only really happy when he's working in the public interest for something he believes in," said Derek Bok '54, Common Cause chairman. Harshbarger's passion for public service inspired the board of Common Cause as it searched for a new president, said Bok. In addition, he said, Harshbarger combined the savvy gained from political experience with the desire to reform the processes of government.
"He has an exemplary record in attracting able people and creating an atmosphere in which they're really energized to work hard for a common goal, and we certainly need that," said Bok, former HLS dean and Harvard University president. "He's a very public sector, public policy person, and I think he was genuinely excited about the prospect of taking an organization with a great tradition and well-known name and lifting it to a higher level by the sheer energy and commitment that he brings to the job."
Harshbarger nearly brought those qualities to the State House in Massachusetts, narrowly losing the 1998 gubernatorial election to Paul Cellucci. But it is how he lost that actually enhanced his credibility and quelled doubts about a losing political candidate leading Common Cause. While labor unions and rank-and-file Democrats supported Harshbarger, much of the state's party leadership spurned his candidacy, political payback for investigations of prominent Democrats he conducted as attorney general.
"The reason I'm here and not governor of Massachusetts is because I was an independent Democrat," he said. "One of the great things about being attorney general was that you had the opportunity and the responsibility to do what you thought was the right thing regardless of politics. So the irony was to come here and realize that I was looked at as partisan by many members of Congress, who said, well, that proves Common Cause has always been a Democratic organization.
"I saw myself primarily as a lawyer, as attorney general or district attorney, and not as a politician per se. I felt that what I had done was be professional, exercise discretion responsibly, make judgments that balance principles, not compromise, and take on tough interests. And that's exactly what Common Cause should be doing."
Any suspicion that Harshbarger would toe a party line at Common Cause was soon refuted when he chastised Vice President Al Gore over fund-raising improprieties. Harshbarger's Democratic friends thought he was unduly harsh, even though he also criticized George W. Bush, an equal opportunity critique for an equal opportunity problem, he said.
Common Cause knows how to criticize, perhaps too well, some have said. Often seen as a national scold that alienated even politicians sympathetic to its goals, the organization must focus as much on the best of government as on its problems, said Harshbarger. Government reform groups, he said, worked so hard to prove government was corrupt that they unwittingly helped convince people that government was not worth fighting for. Harshbarger, of course, believes that it is. So does Archibald Cox '37, professor emeritus at HLS and chairman emeritus of Common Cause.
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