Race, Volunteerism and Love of Place: A Conversation With Chatham’s Incoming Mayor Bruce Harris

Mayor-elect Bruce Harris at the 4th of July parade this summer. Credits: Cara Townsend

CHATHAM BOROUGH, NJ – Mayor-elect Bruce Harris did not set out to be a pioneer in local politics. The soft-spoken Iowa native says his decision to run was based on a deeply-held respect for volunteers and a desire to give back to the community. His thoughts on likely being the first openly gay, black, Republican mayor in the country? A mere sidenote.

The oldest child of twelve, Harris was raised in Cedar Rapids by parents actively involved in the community and in the Civil Rights movement. His father, a doctor who owned a Family Practice and mother, a long-standing volunteer in town, were both NAACP members and dedicated time to the Human Rights Commission of Cedar Rapids.

“My parents received a lot of awards for community involvement over the years,” Harris said. “I remember when I was young, Freedom Riders came to stay at our house on their way to the south. My parents helped equip a car with rollover bars.”

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Iowa was a fairly progressive state to grown up in, Harris says. “George Washington Carver went to college here,” he said. “My mother’s father, a Texas native, went to the University of Iowa because the college admitted blacks. He then went on to med school there. He was not the first black doctor in Iowa, but he was among the first.”

Harris majored in Black Studies at Amherst College, with a focus on the history of West Africa. Following graduation, he enrolled in a management program at New England Telephone.

“I worked as a foreman and installed telephone lines in Boston,” he said. “I managed crews and eventually took a staff job there.” There he attended the Boston University Graduate School of Management.

It was in Boston that Harris met his long-time partner, Marc, with whom he settled at his beloved Elmwood Avenue home.

“I moved to New Jersey through a job with AT&T. I fell in love with Chatham’s quiet and beauty,” he said. “When the opportunity arose to attend Yale Law School I couldn’t pass it up, but I spent my summers in Chatham.”

Harris says neither race nor sexual orientation have been an issue for him in Chatham. “Chatham didn’t strike me as ‘un-diverse’—Cedar Rapids was a town of 90,000 with about 1,000 black residents,” he said. “And I’ve found that what Chatham voters really care about most is your dedication to the town.”

Harris entered the world of local politics by way of the Environmental Commission. “At the time, I thought you would have to know someone to get on a board in Chatham,” he said. “I learned that it’s not a club, all you have to do is step up. It didn’t matter whether you were Republican or Democrat. If you looked at the various boards, you saw both parties represented. At the local level, party membership doesn’t really matter.”

In fact, Harris was once a registered Democrat.

“I voted both ways, but I really liked Gerald Ford!” he said.

Harris said he grew to respect the Republican Party’s efforts in Chatham Borough. “The Republicans do have a long tradition of getting people to volunteer. It’s a group of people who are very involved in the community.”

Harris says Chatham would not be the same without its volunteers, who show their love of the town through their service. “We wouldn’t be able to survive without volunteerism: parents who coach, individuals who serve on boards and commissions-- it makes us a tighter community.”

Harris says his challenges as mayor will be keeping taxes down and improving the downtown business district. “We are not a growing community. There is no space to build new homes. Revenues are going down, so we need to look at other sources of income,” he said.

The Mayor-elect also intends to work with business owners to make it easier to do business with the borough. “Everyone is interested in downtown improvements. There’s no money, so we’re going to have to find other ways to make our central business district even more vital and attractive.”

Chatham has a strong foundation, Harris believes, and as a leader, he respects that: “The goal of a leader is to get people to agree on a set of goals, to stay in-synch and be a facilitator and welcome different ideas.”

Harris will be sworn in as Mayor at the Borough Council reorganization meeting on Jan. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at 54 Fairmount Ave.

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