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Young black lawyer, a Republican, makes bid for Virginia house

October 20, 1997

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) _ Paul Harris appears to be a stereotypical Republican in many ways _ he’s a dapper young lawyer who adores Ronald Reagan, opposes abortion and backs the death penalty, welfare reform and lower taxes.

But if the 33-year-old Harris wins election to the Virginia House seat that Thomas Jefferson won at the same age more than two centuries ago, one thing will set him apart from his GOP colleagues: his skin color.

Harris could become the first black Republican member of the General Assembly in more than a century if he defeats Democrat Bruce Kirtley in the Nov. 4 general election.

Harris’ race, conservatism and eloquence have prompted comparisons to U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, a former college football hero who is now a rising star in national Republican politics.

``We’re both young, passionate in our convictions, and we speak forcefully about what we believe in,″ said Harris, who preaches ``faith, family and freedom″ on the campaign trail.

Family is a word that comes up a lot in conversations with Harris, who was born to an unwed teen-ager and grew up in public housing. He began delivering newspapers at age 11 to help the family pay its bills. His mother worked as a fraternity house cook by day and as a nurse at night.

He remembers the toughest times were father-son nights at Cub Scouts or Little League. His father never participated in his upbringing.

Harris said he first began to consider himself a Republican during his years at Hampton University.

``Looking at facts and applying them to real-life situations, it was just clear the Republican Party was the one I was most comfortable with,″ he said.

Kirtley, 43, acknowledged that Harris will get a lot of attention because of his history-making potential. But Kirtley does not expect that to translate into votes.

``The closer you get to the election and the more you articulate the issues, people will work through the skin color,″ said Kirtley, a convenience store owner.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst, said Harris is the front-runner to replace the retiring Republican Peter Way, and not just because it’s a moderate-to-conservative district.

``It’s difficult to dislike him, even if you disagree with him,″ Sabato said.

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