“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 Congressman 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 statesman once considered invincible by many?
First, the nerd factor.
Harder 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. SATURDAY hours.
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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 four-stroke medley.
Maybe self-effacement is endearing to people. To voters.
After all, nearly 109,000 picked him in the recent, historic 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 both Republicans and Democrats 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.”
Way back in 2002, Denham, a large man with a booming voice and big personality, stunned many 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 late-arriving 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, adding that Denham “was very gracious.” That was a relief, Harder said, because he’s 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 then-freshman 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 has 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.
Meanwhile, he’s aiming to hire from 14 to 18 staff members, about half of whom would work at the Capitol and the others here in a district office. Among location options, believe it or not, is Denham’s existing Sisk Road office on Highway 99 frontage near Salida; the two men share the same number of letters in first and last names and signs could even keep the first J, Harder joked.
He acknowledges that Denham built a lot of goodwill among Valley veterans. Harder will take a close look at continuing some of that outreach, he said, like Denham’s annual jobs fair for veterans.
Part of his job in coming months, Harder said, involves reaching out to Denham’s supporters in a search for middle ground. Harder had repeatedly criticized the incumbent for failing to host town hall meetings where he might be asked tough questions, and for voting with GOP principles 97.8 percent of the time, and said he wants to avoid those mistakes.
“I made a pledge in this campaign to be independent and to be responsive to constituents of this district,” Harder said, “regardless of whether they voted for me.”