After Erika Harold graduated from the University of Illinois, in her hometown of Urbana, she won admission to Harvard Law School. Her problem? She couldn’t afford the tuition.
So Harold, now 38, decided to work her way through law school by entering beauty pageants. Eventually, in 2003, she was crowned Miss America, and spent her reign championing anti-bullying initiatives.
Afterward, Harold brought her degree back to Illinois, where she’s now an attorney at Meyer Capel in Champaign and the Republican nominee for Attorney General. Ahead of the race, in which she trails Democrat Kwame Raoul by 10 points, she spoke with Chicago about corruption in Illinois, why she favors legalizing marijuana, and the challenges of running as a social conservative in a socially liberal state.
You have a fascinating resume, but unlike most Attorneys General, you’ve never held elective office. How are you prepared for this job?
During this election cycle in particular, I think voters actually want someone who’s not held elective office. They want someone who’s willing to challenge the status quo and hold both parties accountable.
In terms of qualifications for this job, I’ve been practicing law since 2007, with an emphasis in complex commercial and civil litigation. I serve on the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Equality, and I’m a commissioner on the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Professionalism. And for the past 11 years, I’ve served on the national board of directors of Prison Fellowship. That’s the nation’s largest outreach organization for inmates and their families, and is a leader in forging a bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform.
Governor Rauner says you’ll prosecute Michael Madigan if you’re elected, but the Attorney General’s doesn’t have that authority. You’ve talked about convening a statewide grand jury. How would that help you prosecute corruption?
When I’ve talked about fighting public corruption, I’ve defined it on a couple levels: First and foremost, [I’d] use the current statutory tools the office already has to investigate public corruption.
Second, [I’d] try to beef up the resources and personnel of the [office’s] Public Access Counselor, who’s in charge of enforcing compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. Those give the public, the media, and watchdog groups the documents they need to monitor what’s happening in local government, which helps to prevent corruption from occurring in the first place.
And then the third prong is calling for the General Assembly to provide the Attorney General’s office with additional investigative tools to investigate public corruption.
What more investigative tools would you like? And how do you get Madigan’s legislature to give them to you?
I think the Attorney General should have the ability to convene statewide grand juries — and issue subpoenas — in a broader context than currently exists. That’s important because the Attorney General is supposed to work collaboratively with State’s Attorneys on a variety of issues. That would be an advantage to the state, because unlike U.S. Attorneys or State’s Attorneys, only the Attorney General has that broad, statewide mandate, and the visibility to be able to talk about these issues.
President Trump is very unpopular in Illinois. Are there any issues on which you differ from him?
On criminal justice issues, the current Attorney General, [Jeff Sessions], has a different philosophy. I think sentencing reform is important, and it’s not clear exactly where the federal government is going to go on those issues.
On the issue of legalizing marijuana, I think that’s something that states should decide for themselves. I happen to think that Illinois should pursue the path to legalization. The opioid epidemic we face is the more urgent issue — that’s where law enforcement resources should be directed. I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be incarcerating people for non-violent marijuana offenses at the rate that we are. There’s also the economic opportunities.
Your opponent, Kwame Raoul, has an ad that claims you once said you would prefer to place a foster child in the home of an abusive straight couple over that of a loving gay couple. Did you say that?
As I repeatedly said when these anonymous allegations were brought to NBC’s attention back during the primary, I do not recall that specific exchange.
If, however, that was the answer that I gave, it’s absolutely wrong. I would not stand by that, and I’ve made clear that I support the right of same-sex couples to be able to adopt and be foster parents, and I think for Senator Raoul to be running an ad that gives the impression that that is my current position is inaccurate. It absolutely misstates my position, and I think it unnecessarily causes voters to be concerned about the rights of their families.
You’ve made anti-bullying a part of your campaign because you say you were bullied in high school. Can you talk about that experience, and what your office would do to combat bullying?
When I was at University High School in Urbana, I was a victim of severe racial and sexual harassment. This included name-calling, teasing, and taunting. It included vandalism of my family’s home. It escalated to a death threat, and, ultimately, I had to leave the school in order to be safe.
That experience was one of the catalysts for me choosing to become an attorney. I wanted to acquire the skills not only to stand up for myself, but for other people. My platform when I was Miss America was ending violence and bullying.
Specifically as Attorney General, I would wish to highlight issues of cyber-bullying, because that bullying becomes even more potentially damaging for young people. When something is posted about them online, a lot of young people fear everyone can see that. I would like the Attorney General’s office to have more resources for parents on what the laws are as they relate to school districts’ responsibility to have anti-bullying policies in place. Hiring an attorney is something that is outside of most families’ economic possibility.
You’re socially conservative — you’re pro-life — yet social conservatives have difficulty winning statewide elections in Illinois. How will your campaign be different?
I am pro-life, but I understand my obligation to defend the constitutionality of Illinois law, and I’ve been very clear that I will fulfill that obligation. I’ve tried to emphasize issues that are not partisan in nature. The office of Attorney General should be one that represents and balances the interests of all Illinoisans, enforces Illinois law, and advocates for reform of issues that are not partisan: public corruption, the opioid epidemic, criminal justice reform.