Af­ter up­set of Den­ham, Harder takes ‘nerdi­ness’ to Wash­ing­ton

The Modesto Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY GARTH STAPLEY gsta­p­[email protected]­

“Kind of a nerd,” Josh Harder chuck­led, de­scrib­ing him­self in a lengthy sit-down in­ter­view ex­plor­ing the back­ground of a young first-time can­di­date who man­aged to take down his for­mer boss, vet­eran U.S. Rep. Jeff Den­ham, in a race in­tently watched across the United States.

Is it more sur­pris­ing that Harder would re­fer to him­self that way, or that he ac­tu­ally worked for Den­ham, a ro­bust and pop­u­lar Repub­li­can states­man once con­sid­ered in­vin­ci­ble by many? First, the nerd fac­tor. Harder, a Demo­crat, was home-schooled for much of his youth in Tur­lock, where he pan­icked when bud­get cuts years ago re­stricted Satur­day hours at the pub­lic li­brary. Sat

ur­day hours. He was pres­i­dent of the chess club and a band geek at Modesto High School, where Harder main­tained a 4.68 GPA in prepa­ra­tion for stud­ies at Stan­ford, and later, Har­vard. Th­ese days, his hob­bies in­clude sci-fi books (“that’s prob­a­bly a huge nerdy sur­prise,” he joked) and fol­low­ing or­ders in the kitchen as bus­boy and sous chef to his wife

of four months, Pam.

Also, he thinks and of­ten talks in bul­let points, and his idea of a good time is watch­ing ro­man­tic come­dies.

Harder, a slen­der 32-year-old, laughed heartily while mulling the above. “Mit­i­gate the nerdi­ness!” he im­plored, sug­gest­ing in­clu­sion of the fact that he briefly tried wa­ter polo and swim­ming — un­til it be­came ob­vi­ous that he couldn’t stay in his lane or re­mem­ber that em­ploy­ing five swim­ming strokes is not ap­pro­pri­ate in a fourstroke med­ley.

Maybe self-ef­face­ment is en­dear­ing to peo­ple. To vot­ers.

Af­ter all, nearly 109,000 picked him in the re­cent, his­tor-

ic 2018 midterm elec­tion for the 10th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict cov­er­ing Stanis­laus County and the south part of San Joaquin County.

The 53 per­cent ma­jor­ity over­looked or for­gave Harder’s pa­thetic per­sonal vot­ing record; he didn’t vote in 17 of 20 elec­tions dat­ing to 2005. Harder also over­came a po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing rev­e­la­tion that he once sup­ported late-term abor­tions, and Repub­li­cans’ at­tempts to paint him as a pup­pet of Nancy Pelosi and lib­eral Bay Area ideals.

And he over­came a po­lit­i­cal ma­chine con­structed over nearly two decades by Den­ham, 51, a like­able mod­er­ate in a dis­trict that has em­braced Repub­li­cans and Democrats alike over the years.

“I think there was a sense (among vot­ers) that their rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Wash­ing­ton was fight­ing for his po­lit­i­cal party, who was fight­ing for him­self, who was fight­ing for his cor­po­rate in­ter­ests, and who was not stand­ing up for us,” Harder said. “I was able to con­vince enough vot­ers that I’m go­ing to do it dif­fer­ently. I’m go­ing to make sure ev­ery de­ci­sion I make is only made (through a) lens of what’s best for the Val­ley.”

In 2002, Den­ham, a large man with a boom­ing voice and a big per­son­al­ity, stunned many peo­ple with an up­set vic­tory over vet­eran politi­cian Rusty Areias to win a seat in the Cal­i­for­nia Se­nate, rep­re­sent­ing a dis­trict that in­cluded parts of Mon­terey and San Ben­ito coun­ties and stretched to in­clude fin­gers of Stanis­laus, Merced and Madera coun­ties. Ini­tial re­turns on elec­tion night that year tilted to­ward Areias, but re­sults flip-flopped in sub­se­quent counts over the fol­low­ing days, and Den­ham even­tu­ally ended on top to se­cure his first po­lit­i­cal win.

That might sound fa­mil­iar. This year, Den­ham held a 3,300-vote edge on elec­tion night, but af­ter tens of thou­sands of latear­riv­ing bal­lots were counted, Harder surged ahead and led by nearly 10,000 votes as of Fri­day, among 220,000 cast; Den­ham con­ceded Nov. 14.

The fact that Harder, a book­ish teenager dur­ing Den­ham’s first term in the state Se­nate, had in­terned then for Den­ham barely sur­faced, and was never dis­cussed be­tween the two, Harder said. It’s pos­si­ble Den­ham doesn’t re­mem­ber, Harder said; “I as­sume he does know, but it’s never come up.

“Ev­ery high school in­tern for our dis­trict of­fice (in or near Modesto) is go­ing to get an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, be­cause who knows what hap­pens 20 years later?” Harder said with a laugh. “It’s a good re­minder to al­ways re­mem­ber the lit­tle guy.”

A cou­ple of weeks ago, Harder at­tended an ini­tial ses­sion of fresh­men ori­en­ta­tion for in­com­ing House mem­bers in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Den­ham ex­tended a po­lite in­vi­ta­tion, and the two dis­cussed in Den­ham’s of­fice the tran­si­tion, in­clud­ing trans­fer­ring files of peo­ple need­ing help with prob­lems in­volv­ing Medi­care, So­cial Se­cu­rity and other fed­eral pro­grams.

“The ten­sion was high in the room, I’d say,” Harder said, but Den­ham “was very gra­cious.” That was a re­lief, Harder said, be­cause he has heard about fel­low House mem­bers en­dur­ing rocky tran­si­tions with bit­ter out­go­ing in­cum­bents.

The Den­ham-Harder cam­paign trail had not been ex­actly friendly.

Both sides, or their par­ties or in­de­pen­dent com­mit­tees, put the op­po­nent’s like­ness in em­bar­rass­ing, car­toon­ish scenes in mail­ers. Repub­li­cans es­pe­cially were vi­cious, Pho­to­shop­ping his face onto bod­ies in Lo­tus position, wear­ing “I (heart) SF” but­tons, dressed as a mime, and wear­ing a doc­tor’s smock and stetho­scope while snap­ping on rub­ber gloves with a cap­tion read­ing, “Bend over.”

Pam Harder said she and her hus­band avoided tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials pounc­ing on him. That was easy enough at home, but less so at the Modesto gym where they work out, with dozens of TV sets mounted on walls and seem­ingly end­less po­lit­i­cal ads bom­bard­ing air waves for weeks on end.

At an Oc­to­ber meet­ing with Modesto Bee ed­i­tors, Den­ham, feel­ing that his wife had been ma­ligned, at one point turned and raised his al­ready big voice at Harder from point-blank range. Harder didn’t flinch.

“Den­ham was try­ing to get a rise out of me,” Harder said in the re­cent in­ter­view. “He’s try­ing to drag us down in the mud. I un­der­stand those games and I’m not fooled by them. ... I had a clear vi­sion of what needed to hap­pen.”

Harder al­ways has been a clear-thinker, say voices from his past.

“I’ve taught a lot of very smart stu­dents in 19 years, and I would put him in the top three,” said Kerry Castel­lani. She is co­or­di­na­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate pro­gram at Modesto High School, whose rep­u­ta­tion for aca­demic ex­cel­lence drew Harder as a teen.

He also was in­sight­ful, she said, re­call­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with the then­fresh­man about Holo­caust survivor Elie Wiesel’s book “Night.” Later, in his se­nior year, he bought a copy signed by Wiesel him­self that was auc­tioned at a ben­e­fit for the school orches­tra, and pre­sented it as a gift to Castel­lani. “That’s not some­thing you’d see many teenage boys do,” she said.

In those days, Harder en­vi­sioned him­self in the med­i­cal field. His fa­ther, Mark, is a lo­cal eye doc­tor who met his mother, Linda, when they both served at a poverty health clinic in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic. Young Josh fol­lowed them to mul­ti­ple sim­i­lar mis­sions in third-world Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries, and later helped farm­ers in Africa.

“He grew up in ( pub­lic ser­vice),” Linda said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “I do think Joshua is well equipped to be a ser­vant leader. He listens to peo­ple of dif­fer­ent opin­ions, and he has an ex­cel­lent tem­per­a­ment to see the big­ger pic­ture.”

While growing up, the Harders seemed like the only pro­gres­sive fam­ily at Tur­lock Evan­gel­i­cal Free Church, now known as Cross­roads Church, he said.

“Ab­so­lutely, re­li­gion played a role” in youth, Harder said. “My par­ents’ en­tire ser­vice ethos is based on their re­li­gious val­ues. They very much be­lieve Je­sus came and said, ‘We need to serve the most vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion among us.’ That in­formed their en­tire lives, and that’s a legacy I hope to con­tinue.”

Pam Harder said her hus­band is “a com­bi­na­tion of in­tel­lec­tual mind meshed with a bleed­ing heart.”

Her fam­ily lives in Vir­ginia, and they met and be­came friends while both stud­ied eco­nom­ics at Stan­ford. Both went on to busi­ness school at Har­vard, where friend­ship blos­somed into ro­mance. They wed Aug. 11 — in the mid­dle of a wild con­gres­sional cam­paign.

“It was un­for­tu­nate tim­ing,” he said, but, “I de­cided I wanted my per­sonal life not to be kept on hold, so we ended up get­ting mar­ried.”

Den­ham tweeted his con­grat­u­la­tions, a mo­ment of kind­ness in an oth­er­wise bru­tal bat­tle.

A be­lated hon­ey­moon will oc­cur in De­cem­ber, Josh Harder said, on “a nice beach with some sand, and warmth, and some sleep. That’s my goal.”

For the record, House mem­ber-elect Max Rose, D-New York, also mar­ried while cam­paign­ing, and an­other, Dean Phillips, D-Min­ne­sota, pro­posed shortly af­ter Elec­tion Day.

The Harders now are at phase 2 of House fresh­man ori­en­ta­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where they ex­pect to find an apart­ment soon. They’ll keep their Tur­lock apart­ment as well, and she’ll look for a job in both places.

Josh Harder said they’ll wel­come chil­dren in time. First, he in­tends to keep a cam­paign prom­ise that they’ll get a dog.

Those fol­low­ing his cam­paign so­cial me­dia ac­counts know that the cou­ple have fos­tered a se­ries of adopt­able dogs of­fered at the Stanis­laus County an­i­mal shel­ter in Modesto, where Pam Harder vol­un­teered un­til cam­paign du­ties be­came too de­mand­ing. She de­scribes her hus­band “rolling on the floor” late at night with fos­ter dogs, “a side (of him) that a lot of folks don’t see. It’s adorable.”

Josh Harder has no plan, he said, to re­turn to ven­ture cap­i­tal­ism, a field he left when de­cid­ing to re­turn to Tur­lock for the race. He’s a bit an­noyed at the thought of be­ing called a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist, one of only two in Con­gress, ac­cord­ing to Re­code, a tech pub­li­ca­tion; the other is Sen. Mark Warner, D-Vir­ginia. (Re­code, by the way, in Septem­ber re­ferred to Harder as “de­lib­er­ate, prac­ticed and some­times nerdily stilted on the cam­paign trail, much like he might be in a board meet­ing.”)

“I don’t think (the ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist la­bel) is ac­cu­rate. I’ve done a lot of things in my ca­reer,” he said, list­ing work with non­prof­its, con­sult­ing and en­trepreneur­ship be­fore ven­ture cap­i­tal­ism with Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group, and later in New York City and San Fran­cisco with Besse­mer Ven­ture Part­ners.

When he re­turned to Tur­lock, Harder took an ad­junct in­struc­tor position at Modesto Ju­nior Col­lege, teach­ing his last busi­ness class in the spring se­mes­ter. He has sym­pa­thy for both sides of a con­tract im­passe that led to a fac­ulty strike Tues­day and Wed­nes­day and might re­sult in an­other. “The real cul­prit is the con­tin­ued un­der­fund­ing of higher ed­u­ca­tion,” Harder said.

His first of­fi­cial day at the Capi­tol comes at a Jan. 3 swear­ing in. House mem­bers’ first vote that day will be se­lect­ing a speaker, an is­sue that al­ready has put Harder on the spot; he did not im­me­di­ately pub­licly en­dorse Pelosi, who pre­vi­ously held the job from 2007 to 2011, but nei­ther did he join a few Democrats pre­fer­ring a fresh face who are dead-set against her.

“I’m keep­ing an open mind,” Harder told The Bee be­fore Wed­nes­day’s Demo­cratic cau­cus nom­i­na­tions. “I say, `I will vote for you if you can con­vince me you’re go­ing to gov­ern and not get lost in par­ti­san bick­er­ing. ... I’ve got a man­date to ac­tu­ally solve prob­lems, and that’s what I have to be fo­cused on.”

On Thurs­day evening, Harder is­sued a state­ment in sup­port of Pelosi, say­ing, “I’m en­cour­aged by the pro­posed rules changes that will help break the grid­lock and al­low more bi­par­ti­san bills to reach the floor for votes.”

Harder has shown a will­ing­ness to go his own way in other ar­eas. He sup­ported re­peal­ing the state gas tax on the Novem­ber bal­lot, al­though most vot­ers in Cal­i­for­nia de­cided to keep it; and Harder wants more wa­ter stor­age for farm­ers and Val­ley cities like Modesto de­pend­ing on moun­tain snowmelt for tap­wa­ter — a rather un­pop­u­lar idea among Democrats.

House mem­bers typ­i­cally serve on two com­mit­tees, re­ceiv­ing as­sign­ments in com­ing weeks. Harder said his busi­ness skills could be a good fit for En­ergy and Com­merce, or Ed­u­ca­tion and the Work­force; Agri­cul­ture also is im­por­tant to the Val­ley.

JOAN BAR­NETT LEE [email protected]­

Josh Harder, 32, was elected to the U.S. House in the 10th Dis­trict, de­feat­ing in­cum­bent Jeff Den­ham, for whom he once worked.

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