Actor Hill Harper says running for office is a ‘natural fit’ dating back decades

As part of theGrio's "Running Black" election series, theGrio sits down with the longtime Hollywood star who says he's ready to serve Michigan voters.

U.S. Senate candidate Hill Harper. (Photo: Hill Harper for Michigan)

TheGrio’s “Running Black” election series profiles Black candidates running for office in the 2024 elections. If successful, each candidate profiled could make history in their state. Hear from them in their own words about what’s at stake in their races, for the country, and for Black and brown communities on the political margin.

Award-winning actor and advocate Hill Harper is running for the United States Senate in the purple state of Michigan. The 57-year-old Democratic Senate candidate and single father hopes to replace retiring U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in November. That is, if he can survive the Democratic primary on Aug. 6.

Harper, best known for his roles in “CSI: NY” and “Good Doctor,” wants to hang up his acting hat to embark on what he hopes will be a new calling in public service. After over 30 years in the television and film industry, Harper has drawn much from acting that he believes prepared him for a political career. 

”I’m proud to be an actor because the one thing acting gives you is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes,” he told theGrio. “It gives you empathy … you don’t judge a character you play. You try to understand them.”

Harper, the son of doctors — an anesthesiologist and psychiatrist — said his political activism dates back to his days as an undergraduate student at Brown University when he and others protested and advocated for divestment from South Africa over its apartheid laws. Reflecting on the state of the country and the world today, he said, “This is a matter of life and death.”

“Good common sense people have to start running for office, and unless we do, we’re giving away our democracy,” he told theGrio. “We’re seeing people literally die because of the decisions that are being made, or the lack of decisions that are being made.”

As he embarks on his new role as Senate candidate in a state he believes is a “microcosm of the rest of the nation,” Harper says he’s most concerned with policy issues like labor, manufacturing, tech, migration, and health care affordability. As the controversial war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza region continues, there is also a political spillover happening in Dearborn, Michigan, driven by outrage there with large Arab, Muslim, and Jewish communities.

If he is able to emerge victorious in the Democratic primary race and subsequently win the general election, Harper will make history as the first Black American from Michigan to serve in the U.S. Senate. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JULY 25: Hill Harper attends as SAG-AFTRA members hold “Rock The City For A Fair Contract” rally in Times Square on July 25, 2023 in New York City. Members of SAG-AFTRA, Hollywood’s largest union which represents actors and other media professionals, have joined striking WGA (Writers Guild of America) workers in the first joint walkout against the studios since 1960. The strike could shut down Hollywood productions completely with writers in the third month of their strike against the Hollywood studios. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

Despite his fame, Harper is considered an underdog in this year’s election. Born in Iowa City, Iowa, in 1966, some Michigan voters view him as a transplant. While in Detroit during an event discussing racial equity, a group of local Black female advocates told theGrio that Harper’s candidacy will likely be an uphill battle because he is not homegrown. Hill purchased a residence in the state where he also owns a Detroit coffee shop, the Roasting Plant, among his other entrepreneurial projects and ventures across the country. 

In his efforts to win the primary and general elections, Harper said his campaign is trying to do it “the good old-fashioned way.” 

To date, only 12 Black Americans have served in the U.S. Senate. One of those U.S. senators, former President Barack Obama, whom Harper befriended as a student at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s. Despite that progress, the number of Black U.S. senators pales to the nearly 12,000 non-Black U.S. senators elected.

“People get shocked … there has been a higher percentage of Black presidents (1 out of 45) in the U.S. than there has been a percentage of Black U.S. Senators,” said Harper, who noted that some Black U.S. senators were appointed and not elected statewide.

For those who may question his lack of experience to serve in the U.S. Senate, Harper named U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., as examples of those who had no political background before being elected to Congress. While Harper has never served in elected office, he contributed his voice to political issues and brought his expertise to advance policy. He served in Obama for America’s National Finance Committee and President Obama’s Cancer Panel, which worked with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to make policy recommendations to the White House.

With his campaign, Harper said he is ”fighting the establishment,” telling theGrio, “Power does not concede easily.” His words closely mirrored the historical phrase from abolitionist and scholar Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.”

Unlike other politicians, Harper said he is in this race to “represent people,” declaring, “I’m not here to represent the party.” He added, “Neither party has ever been interested in insurgent, independent-minded candidates who can’t be bought, bossed or bullied.” 

Though some may question his candidacy because of his Hollywood roots, Harper recalled the advice from the late actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, who he described as his idol and somewhat of a mentor. Belafonte told Harper, “You have to be political. You have to be an activist if you are going to truly impact the world.” 

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