Video: The Sunday Interview with Ed Harbison
Ed Harbison has lived an interesting 74 years.
Raised in Montgomery, Ala., during segregation, he was a U.S. Marine who fought in Vietnam, a broadcaster, an insurance salesman and for the last 23 years a Georgia state senator.
Harbison, a Columbus Democrat, recently sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about the General Assembly, his career and his life.
Here are some excerpts from that interview:
You've been in the Georgia General Assembly since 1993; how has it changed over the years?
Clearly, one of the obvious changes is that it has switched from Democratic to Republican. That's the major change. When I went there, I went in as a chairman. Ironically, I went in as chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Pete Robinson was the president pro temp at that time. They sort of paved the way for me. I didn't shoot for that, I was shooting for some way to serve children, but ironically it turned out that everybody saw me doing things for veterans and it turned out good.
You're still on that committee, right?
Now I'm the vice chair, but I was the chair until last year. I became chair of the State Institutions Committee, which is really over prisons in the state of Georgia. They just changed the name of it. We manage the sale of property and oversee property and that kind of thing.
You are one of the few Democratic senators that chairs a committee, right?
Why is that?
I guess it's because -- let me put it this way -- Sen. David Schaffer and I were talking one day and he said, "Ed, I remember that when you were chair of Regulated Industries that I brought something before your committee?" He and Jeff Mullis both say that, "When we brought something before your committee, you treated us very fair. You treated everybody the same." I suppose because of that, I'm assuming now, that's why when the opportunity came up I was named the chair of a standing committee.
When you look now, obviously the Democrats are no longer in control of much of anything in Atlanta. How does a Democrat become an effective lawmaker in a climate that's stacked against him?
I believe it's the ability for people to see your integrity, see your credibility and work with you based on where you are and get things done. I don't pass a thousand bills, but I pass very high profile, effective bills.
What was the last bill you passed?
The last bill I passed was the one naming the state of Georgia a Purple Heart state. After that, it was a real serious bill that dealt with veterans. That was establishing the veterans court. I carried that bill. I think, actually going back to your other question, I think one of the reasons that it's happened, Georgia -- the General Assembly --has a great deal of respect for veterans, for soldiers. I have that role and with that I suppose that they give me that responsibility because of that affiliation, my service during the Vietnam War.
Growing up in a segregated Montgomery in the 1950s and '60s, what were your dreams?
My dream was to finish high school and perhaps get a job as a postman or a teacher. In order to fund that, I would have gone to the Army, stayed two years, have enough money to come out and pay for my education at Alabama State University or Huntsville or some college like that. That was it. There was nothing beyond those borders.
When I went to the service and all the turmoil that we were involved in during the Civil Rights era, things began to expand. Your horizon, your peripheral vision expanded to take in other things, to consider the possibilities. You could do this. You can become something other than that. We were starting to see -- not necessarily in Montgomery, but in other places -- by way of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. there were black lawmakers in other parts of the country. Like Atlanta, Leroy Johnson and people like that. We were amazed that this was happening because we never contemplated it. It was something you didn't think of.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a soldier in the Civil Rights movement that did the Montgomery bus boycott; she was a maid. My daddy was a laborer. Walter Harbison worked on the farm and drove tractors and did construction work to make ends meet.
They didn't have a formal education?
Absolutely not. I don't think my mom finished the sixth grade, but she's the one who taught me how to read and the smartest person I know. They had great, solid values. You can measure a man or woman, not only by what they know by book knowledge, but by their character, by how you deal with people.
I was taught you respect everybody. You bring respect and give respect. I will not hate a person because of what my mom taught me, what my father taught me. You have to be that way. If you don't, you'll just implode into an ineffective person. You've got to be strong. You've got to be focused and believe in God -- that God will take care of it -- and be spiritual as you can and I believe it comes to you.
How far have we come in race relations?
If you had asked me that before the election of President Obama, I would have said a long, long, long way. We can go to the same restaurants, we can go to the same places to eat and you can be educated based on your merit, mostly. Now there's a kind of animosity being permeated by a few people, a few people who are poisoning the well of good will among the races. I think that's not good. At the same time, I am given hope by the fact that you have solid leaders in place who turned a deaf ear to that kind of thing and reach across the aisle to work with one another to make sure that we don't descend or disintegrate under the kind of animosity that was prevalent in the South, and for that matter, the entire country.
Do you think some of the criticism of President Obama is race-related?
Yes. Clearly, yes. Some of it is just ideology, just different opinions, as well.
It's a mixture, right?
It is. ... I've never seen a president treated that way. I remember when President Bush was president and when the war jumped up, people wanted to criticize him about the Iraqi war. I get that. I don't want to get off on that, I'm just saying that people expected everybody to get onboard and start criticizing the president. The aspect I would not criticize was the one where we employed our troops. If you want to criticize the president, fine, but not the troops for doing what they were ordered to do.
Talk about what the Marine Corps and the military did for you. You were 20, you enlisted and it was at the start of the Vietnam conflict, right?
Yeah. It was starting, but I didn't know it had started. The story behind that, Chuck, is that I joined the Marines, but I was going to join the Army. A buddy of mine said, "No, let's not. I want you to go with me. We're going to join the Marine Corps because they've got great uniforms. We can travel overseas. We can get girls, plenty of girls." We were both 18, 20 years old, you know.
I said, "Man, I'm going to the Army just to get in and get out in two years."
He said, "No, trust me. You'll be better off without that."
I joined the Marine Corps, and six months later I was in Vietnam.
It taught you, reinforced the discipline that you had from your parents. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who said the Marine Corps really sets the standard for discipline and training.
How many tours did you do?
I was in Vietnam three different times during the Vietnam War. I was there March 8, 1965 -- that was the second time, when we invaded. I had already been there when we were guarding jets and patrolling Vietnam around Da Nang. Then I went back again the third time because I knew they were going to send me back. I went back and I said, "If I get out of here this time, I'm not going to push it."
What was Vietnam like for you?
The one thing that it taught me in the final analysis, in a serious way, is that war is horrible. War, sometimes it's necessary, but it should be a thing of last resort. When all the talking is over, all the negotiations you've done, it should be an action of last resort and not just sacrifice the young blood of our men and women because it's a whim and you're hard -- it's an idea you want to enforce, something that's other than defending the principles of this great country we live in.
Like you, former Sen. Seth Harp of Columbus was a Marine. You and Sen. Harp got along very well, right?
Yes, Sen. Land and I did, as well.
Judge Clay Land is now a federal judge, yeah. Although, you're a Democrat and they are Republicans, how were you able to do that?
By focusing on what is important for Columbus. You focus on what is good for Columbus. Columbus has a reputation before I got aboard of being a great delegation that represents the envy of other legislative delegations from around the state, and I'm just honored to be part of that. I try to make sure that I adhere to that principle -- that, look, we might disagree on some things, but when it comes to Columbus, this particular area, we're going to be in lockstep and make sure we represent the best face, put the best foot forward.
Is that still the case?
It really is. Look, you're going to have legislators who do things you might not vote for, even. When you're talking about the one thing or the two or three things on the agenda, we get the walking orders we get from our city council, our people on the school board, we get together and try to come up with the best plan to accommodate those needs. It doesn't always work that way -- someone may disagree -- but the idea is not come up with a visible split in what we're trying to accomplish and don't let that ruin the camaraderie of what we're trying to do within the legislative body.
Do you get along well with Sen. Josh McKoon?
Yes, I do.
Sen. McKoon is pushing the religious liberties bill. Where do you stand on that?
That's his bailiwick. I let him fight his fight. That is something that I don't necessarily embrace, but he and I are friends. I don't let that come between the friendship and the fact that we are both serving the same community. That's his idea, that's his agenda. Even my good friend State Rep. Calvin Smyre, State Rep. Carolyn Hugley or Rep. Debbie Buckner -- anyone of them -- they may come up with something that I disagree with, but at the same time, I would not make a public issue out of it. That was their baby, and they can stand or fall on that on their own merit.
You brought up Rep. Smyre. He's about to do his 42nd lap. Forty-two years in the General Assembly.
It's just amazing.
What does it take to do 42 years in Atlanta?
It'd take a lot of determination and more importantly, it'd take a lot of support from the community that sent him there, who's apparently very satisfied with what they're doing. One thing I think about the African-American community, the business community, and all the factors that make up the district that we serve, if they're satisfied with you, they usually will back you, by the grace of God. State Rep. Carolyn Hugley's been up there 23 years.
Y'all went up at the same time?
We went at the same time, right. My point of it is, there's a certain stability to it -- I guess that's the way they see it. At the same time, the key is being receptive to some of the concerns of the people. If you don't listen to the people, you know. ... I intend to listen to the people.
Let me ask you this -- this may be a little tricky, but I'll ask it -- you've got Rep. Smyre, Rep. Hugley and you. All of y'all are approaching 25 years to 40-something. You're the only three black lawmakers elected from this area. There hasn't been a turnover in those seats. How do you get young blood into this process?
There are qualified people there, young people who have shown interest to me, people who've shown interest to Rep. Smyre, and Hugley, and on down the line. My point of it is, that they're there. They're ready to answer the call. They have been talked to, and prepped -- prepped among themselves as opposed to something official. They stand at the ready. That's the key.
Do you feel like they're pushing you toward the door?
No, I don't get that at all.
When you hit the door, they're going to step in, right?
They're going to step in and be ready. I don't mind that. I think that's healthy. This is the seat of the people. The people control who's here, who's not here, what you do and what you don't do. I'm great with that. I think democracy in America's a great thing. ... You're not going to be there long unless you're doing the basic good that particular community wants you to do. Otherwise, they would vote you out.
How much longer do you see yourself doing this? You're up for re-election this year.
I am, and I intend to run, of course, this year. A lot of times you get the feeling that people want you to say when you're going to leave, but you do that and raise false hope in people and put people in a terrible position. I don't want to do that to anybody.
One of the constants in your world has been the senate, has been the elected office. I know, personally, it's been a very difficult time for you over the last couple of years. Your wife passed away, what, two years ago?
Three years ago. She passed away of breast cancer in 2012. My brother passed away of brain cancer in 2011 and my other brother passed away two weeks after my wife died. It was just one-two-three. With tragedy, it's going to visit so, you know, praying that you'll have the constitution to deal with it.
The whole thing, and you asked me about my tenure, about serving, you've got to remember when she was going through this illness and I had all these other responsibilities, I had my hands full. Unfortunately, by her passing, some of that has been alleviated so I'm rather free to serve, hopefully even more effectively than I have in the past. At the same time, I doubt very seriously if I'll be there 40 years.
Talk about the loss. I know when you were dealing with your wife's cancer and her illness it was pretty rough on you and you were trying to do everything else. How did her loss impact you?
You'd be surprised a lot of time. ... The vows are for better/worse. You've had that vow. We who are married have it. When you say it, you answer it, but you don't really contemplate the extent that it can go -- that you've got to be there for somebody when they're the lowest they have been physically and they cannot do things for themselves that they ordinarily could do. Then that's when you step up and you step up with a good spirit that, "Here's a person I care about. Here's a person that we shared love with. We've had children together." Whether it's the man or the woman. "I'm going to dedicate myself to making sure that she either gets well or I provide for her the best comfort possible during her low point in life, her physical illness." You've got to understand that the person who's ill, they're proud, they don't want to have to be in a position where somebody has to actually help them do hygiene things and do other things and push them in a wheelchair.
It's a rough thing. This is what you do, you step out on faith and you keep going. You just go and go and you pray to God every night and every day that you can be the best husband or the best wife you can be to that person until you see them through it one way or the other. I had an aunt -- her name was Beulah Hall -- and Beulah Hall just had this thing about her. She was just one of these old ladies, just went to church and she could just preach the devil out of the room. If someone in our family got ill, Beulah would stay until either two things happened: Either they got better or they died. She would leave her job to do this. She would clean and cook and clean the house and clean wounds and dress wounds. I learned from her that that's true self-sacrifice, that's doing the best you can under a very terrible circumstance.
Name: Sen. Ed Harbison
Hometown: Montgomery, Ala.
Current Home: Columbus
Job: Georgia state senator, District 15, elected in 1992; Aflac sales representative.
Education: Booker T. Washington High School, Montgomery, 1963; attended Troy University; Career Academy School of Broadcasting, Atlanta, 1971.