Erika Harold: From bullying victim to Miss America to politician

PAXTON — Before Erika Harold became Miss America — and before she decided to seek the office of Illinois attorney general in this November’s election — she was the victim of racial and sexual harassment.

While a freshman in high school in Urbana, Harold was called names and teased by some of her classmates. Eventually, the harassment escalated to vandalism at the home she shared with her parents and three siblings.

“We’d wake up and see the car had been vandalized,” Harold, now 38, told an audience at the Paxton American Legion Hall on Saturday morning during the Ford County Republican Women’s Club’s annual spring brunch.

The harassment then escalated to the point Harold received a death threat.

“I actually went to school one day and there were students standing together, and they were talking about pooling their lunch money together to buy a gun to shoot me,” Harold said. “And when I went to the (school) administrator about it, they refused to take steps to really protect me. In fact, they said it was my job to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Ultimately, I had to transfer to a different high school.”

Harold said she felt “profoundly marginalized and powerless” at that time in her life.

“But it was also a time when I decided I wanted to become an attorney, because I wanted to develop the skills to not only be able to stand up for myself but also to be able to stand up for other people,” Harold said.

Becoming a conservative
After graduating from Urbana High School in 1997, Harold went on to study political science and history at the University of Illinois. While at the university, she became a political conservative.

“I didn’t grow up in a political family, but as I was just reading these textbooks I thought, ‘Wow, it makes sense that you would want to have a limited government — that you’d want a free market — because that’s where the people would have the greatest opportunities to create wealth and opportunity for their families,” Harold said. “So I didn’t know that’s what the professors were hoping I’d get out of the class, but that’s what I got out of them.”

Upon graduating from the UI, Harold applied to law schools and ended up being accepted to Harvard Law School, her top choice.

“I was delighted until I got the letter in the mail that said how much it was going to cost,” Harold said. “It was about $175,000 for the three years, and as just a regular person with regular parents, that was not something that was remotely feasible for us. In fact, when I shared the letter with my parents, they said, ‘We’re really proud of you; you should save that letter as a souvenir and you can apply to a law school that you can actually afford to attend.’”

Harold then came up with a plan to pay for her schooling. Harold, who had competed in the Miss Illinois pageant a couple of times while in college, decided to do so again, this time with her eye on advancing to the Miss America pageant.

“So I went back to my parents and said, ‘I have my payment plan for Harvard Law School,’” Harold said. “They, of course, wanted to know what it was, and I said, ‘I’m going to attempt to become Miss America this year.’ They looked at me and said, ‘And what is your backup plan?’ I had very keep-it-real parents; they’d tell you what you needed to hear and not necessarily what you wanted to hear.”

Becoming Miss America
Harold ended up winning the Illinois pageant and was crowned Miss America in 2003. And thankfully for Harold, Harvard had saved her spot, too.

Not only did being Miss America provide Harold with the opportunity to travel the nation for a year, it enabled her to graduate debt-free from Harvard in 2007.

As Miss America, Harold worked with the United Service Organizations (USO), giving her a “profound sense of gratitude for being able to be in a country like ours, where people are willing to sacrifice for others.” A highlight of that time was when Harold was given the chance to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solder in Arlington National Cemetery.

“I was 22 at the time, but it made such an impact on me — the obligation that each and every one of us has to make a difference if we can — because not every country is like ours where people will voluntarily lay down their lives for their fellow countrymen or countrywomen,” Harold said. “Service is important to me because of that.”

Also as part of her Miss America duties, Harold picked a “platform issue” that she would make her “national cause” as Miss America.

“I picked the issue of youth violence and bullying because of my own experience,” Harold said.

Becoming an attorney
Years later, after becoming an attorney, Harold decided to focus her legal practice on “trying to protect people’s rights and their assets and making them feel that they have someone who’s fighting for them in a legal system that too often feels stacked against them.”

Harold first practiced law for six years in Chicago and currently practices at the Meyer Capel law firm in Champaign, where her practice focuses on “complex commercial and civil litigation” and constitutional law, she said.

“I’ve represented religious institutions on some of their religious and First Amendment issues,” Harold said. “But regardless of the case or the client, I always want my clients to know that I am fighting for them and that I will make sure they have the best representation.”

Becoming a politician
Harold said her “desire to be an advocate for people” is why she decided to seek the office of Illinois attorney general.

“The job of attorney general is to be the chief legal officer for the state, to make sure that we have a voice fighting for us against Springfield and against a lot of these special interests that are not fighting for us,” Harold said. “I saw our attorney general (Democrat Lisa Madigan) not doing that. I saw her involving the state in lawsuits that did not have real legal merit but were about making a political point. ... I also saw public corruption not being addressed and special interests not being addressed.

“A lot of people are nervous about taking on the Madigan Machine, but I’m not somebody who’s daunted by those odds. And so I said, ‘I’m stepping up and I’m going to run against Lisa Madigan.’ And exactly one month after I announced my candidacy, Lisa Madigan announced she was no longer seeking re-election after all.”

Harold said her campaign thus far has been “going really well.” Harold won the Republican primary in the state and is now set to square off with her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Kwame Raoul, in November’s general election. Harold said her opponent is a Chicago Democrat who is “backed by the Madigan Machine.”

“He opposes fair maps and just this past week introduced two pieces of legislation that will drive up the cost of doing business in Illinois,” Harold said. “He’s not somebody who understands that the (attorney general’s) office is not about political stunts; it’s about representing the people’s interests and following the rule of law.”

Harold said that because of her background, she hopes to be able to “bring our message to groups that sometimes wouldn’t listen to conservatives.”

Five priorities
Harold said she has five priorities for the attorney general’s office:

— “To make sure that the rule of law is enforced and the constitution is upheld.”

“Too often people view the constitution as just an antiquated document that no longer has relevance,” Harold said. “But I believe the rule of law is central to who we are as Americans and who we are as a state, because that’s the contract that we’ve made with our government, and if we stray from the rule of law, then we will have lost our way and politicians’ whims will be the things that dictate what happens.”

— “Fighting public corruption.”

“We have a lot of corruption that occurs within our state, and to give you some examples, it’s the patronage hiring; it’s the contracts and grants that are given based on political considerations as opposed to which community is most deserving and who has put forth the best plan,” Harold said. “Those might seem like trivial things to people, but they’re huge, because in a government where those sorts of abuses go unchecked, it undermines respect for the rule of law and it makes people feel their government doesn’t respect them. And it makes people feel that they’re playing by the rules but there’s a second set of rules for everybody else.”

— “Workers’ compensation reform.”

“That’s important because right now we are losing a lot of jobs and projects and industries to neighboring states,” Harold said. “And it’s not that Illinois companies are somehow inferior to other companies, but it’s that we have a workers’ compensation system that puts our businesses at a competitive disadvantage. ... So when people are trying to decide, ‘Does it make sense to locate here or somewhere else,’ they pick Indiana, or they pick Wisconsin, because they’re having to factor in our workers’ comp costs.”

If elected, Harold said she will be setting forth a series of reforms that she will be calling upon the General Assembly to enact “to make businesses have an incentive to create jobs here and to not just ship them to other states.”

— Providing better treatment options for Illinoisans addicted to opioids.

“Right now, our attorney general is not being as proactive as she could be,” Harold said. “There are best practices and treatment mechanisms that could save lives if we were more proactive.”

Harold said she has been talking with state’s attorneys in the state about what could be done to “leverage the resources that we have to provide treatment options to the people who want to be treated.” Harold said the “biggest problem” she has heard from local prosecutors is that “once people come to a point where they want to actually get treatment, we don’t have enough facilities within our state.”

— Criminal justice reform.

“What I’d like to see that look like in Illinois is more use of drug courts, mental health courts and veterans courts,” Harold said. “That’s important, because right now we are spending a lot of money incarcerating people, but we are not seeing good outcomes from it; we are not seeing people coming out of prison better-equipped to get a job, better-equipped to invest in their community. We’re seeing people who may have decided to try to turn their life around, but they come out of the system where their opportunities for employment or housing are a lot worse than they were before they started.

“If a judge feels that somebody could be rehabilitated, I would rather have us invest those dollars up front for giving somebody an opportunity to try to turn their life around, as opposed to just continuing to waste money on a system that we know has broken policies and has failed us. I think it’s a better use of tax dollars. I think it would be enhancing of public safety. But I also think it’s a better reflection of the values that we have as conservatives, because we do believe in things like human dignity, the sanctity of every life and that every human being is made in the image of God.

“I want our criminal justice system to actually reflect those principles, and I’m going to fight to make them a priority.”

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