U.S. Senate candidate, NU alumnus addresses students about racial inequality, police brutality


Zack Laurence/The Daily Northwestern

Illinois State Senator Napoleon Harris speaks Tuesday night in the McCormick Foundation Center on his transition from pro-football to politics. The event featured a lengthy Q&A in which students asked questions about education inequality, police brutality and campus protests.

David Fishman, Reporter

State senator and former NFL linebacker Napoleon Harris (Communication ’02) spoke to students about police brutality in Chicago, college campus protests and his transition to politics Tuesday night in the McCormick Foundation Center.

About 40 students showed up to hear Harris speak during an hour-long event co-sponsored by College Democrats, Wildcats for Israel and Political Union.

Harris credits time spent in the locker room for giving him a diverse perspective he now applies to politics.

“If you look at a football team, it’s a melting pot of people: African Americans, Caucasians, Italians, Hispanics, Asians — you have all different types of ethnic groups and backgrounds,” he said. “When you enter that locker room, you’re no longer a race. You’re a band of brothers working together for a common purpose.”

After playing for Northwestern’s football team, Harris played for a number of professional teams before turning to politics. After Illinois state Sen. James Meeks retired in 2013, Harris successfully ran to replace the 10-year senator. Almost immediately after taking his oath of office, Harris launched a campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives but dropped out of the race in early 2013 and endorsed Rep. Robin Kelly.

In an extensive Q&A, Harris touched on a number of hot-button issues including gentrification, police brutality, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and life in professional football — but no issue hit closer to home for him than education. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Harris said he witnessed academic inequality, becoming acutely aware of inconsistencies among local schools.

“Right now, if you think about the way education is here in Illinois, I can tell you first-hand it’s inadequate,” he said. “Not every child from every part of this state receives the same education. … The educational formula that we have is based primarily off property taxes.”

In March, Harris will face former Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth for the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Mark Kirk for a spot in the U.S. Senate.

The son of a single mother, Harris said his political advantage comes not from military experience or financial backing, but from childhood hardship.

“I know what it’s like to be poor,” he said. “I know what it’s like to see your mama struggle. I know what it’s like to stand in a welfare line and beg for resources. … No other candidate can say that.”

Sky Patterson, who also grew up on the South Side of Chicago, said she mostly agreed with the state senator and would vote for him, but doesn’t believe in the “American Dream,” a focal point of Harris’s speech.

“The American Dream is a nice ideology that people like to talk about,” the SESP freshman said. “(But) I don’t think that it’s actually attainable by everyone.”

Weinberg senior David Friedman, a member of College Republicans, said he enjoyed hearing the speech and thought Harris had a good chance in the upcoming election.

Harris left students with an impassioned remark, received by widespread applause from the audience.

“Nobody is going to outwork me,” Harris said. “I am relentless and I will not stop, will not be defeated — I’m too passionate about what I do, I care too much about people that are suffering. … It’s not political with me. It’s personal because I remember my mother sitting there not eating. That’s my driving force.”

A previous version of this story misstated the office Harris ran for in 2013. Harris ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Daily regrets the error.

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