Written by Chad Dally
The first clue I had about Marathon County Supervisor William Harris’s dedication to his work came not because he was willing to be profiled for this newsletter, but when he answered my inquiry to interview him: The timestamp on his email read a little after 3 a.m.
The second, third, and subsequent clues came from our recent virtual chat as I got to know more about Harris — elected in April 2020 to represent Marathon County’s District 3 in Wausau — and his fervent desire to do some good in the world and help others in many different ways.
Harris holds a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, as well as 2 (LL.M.) Master’s in Law degrees: one in International Legal Studies with a specialization in International Human Rights Law, and the other for Law & Government with a specialization in Constitutional & Civil Rights Law. Impressive credentials to have in your back pocket, and though he would no doubt be welcome at a private law firm, he currently works as a staff attorney for Wisconsin Judicare, a non-profit law firm in Wausau dedicated to providing equal access to justice for residents of Northern Wisconsin as well as the state’s 11 federally recognized Indian tribes.
Working in Judicare’s Civil Unit, Harris represents victims of domestic and child abuse, low-income clients facing homelessness, as well as clients facing employment discrimination. He has also represented clients in tribal court and is barred in 5 federally recognized Indian tribes. In addition, he does regular outreach at The Women’s Community in Wausau to assist domestic abuse victims, and he assists others in Taylor and Lincoln Counties with legal outreach. Harris said of himself:
“I’ve always been a person who’s tried to advocate for people, in terms of trying to provide a voice for those who normally don’t have a voice, and I wanted to bring that same sort of passion, in terms of representation, to my community.”
So, how did a native of West Palm Beach, Florida — educated in Michigan and Washington, DC — end up in this community?
Well, the young man from the Sunshine State discovered he actually liked the four seasons of the Midwest while he studied for his J.D. at the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School. After finishing his dual Master’s degrees at American University–Washington College of Law, Harris moved to Madison. Then, a few years ago, he took the State Bar of Wisconsin’s bus tour throughout the state — aimed at recruiting young lawyers to serve outside of Madison and Milwaukee. Something just clicked for him when he arrived in Wausau:
“I wanted to settle down in a smaller community where I could really be involved, somewhere I could put my talents towards helping those that are most in need. I met with the executive director of Judicare, and their goals matched up with my career goals. And, Wausau really felt like home when I came here.”
It was in his first home, though, with his family in Florida, that the desire to help others took root. His father, Dennis Harris, is a deacon at Christ Evangelical Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, and his mother, Versie, handles the church’s finances. Their parents instilled in Harris and his two sisters — one a nurse, Dennisha Jackson, the other a teacher, Ashley Harris — the need to give of themselves to help others. William shared:
“My dad would visit the sick and poor. We’d go to food pantries and during Thanksgiving serve food or hand out canned goods. That was always my background and came from my grandparents, too — to give — so I grew up with that. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve tried to be involved in my community.”
Last year, Harris decided to take the next step in community involvement when he ran for the Marathon County Board of Supervisors — a decision he said was the result of seeds planted more than a decade ago. Laughing, the 38-year-old Supervisor said:
“I had always thought you had to be really old to run for office!
But I was one of those people who was inspired by the election of President [Barack] Obama. Something he said stuck to me: ‘We are the ones that we’re waiting for.’ You want to see change, you need to be the change you want to see.”
The fact that William and Former President Obama both studied law is not the only similarity. Both can claim to be the first in their respective elected office: Barack Obama is the first African American president of the United States, and William Harris is the first African American supervisor in the Marathon County Board’s history. Although Harris said he doesn’t necessarily feel pressure from the weight of that fact, he did acknowledge that it comes with a certain responsibility:
“I do feel the responsibility of making sure that minorities, people of color, different voices are heard that maybe haven’t been within our community, and that people feel — because maybe they didn’t see someone who looked like them before — that they have a voice and can speak up and they belong. And to ensure we are a more welcoming and diverse community.”
Harris said he started representing those voices right away at his first supervisor meeting, when the time came for committee and board assignments:
“I made the statement that you can’t really have diversity if you don’t have diverse populations contributing, and we need the boards and the committees to reflect that. And to Chairman [Kurt] Gibbs’s credit, this is the most diverse — in terms of committee structure — in the history of the board. I’m proud of that fact and happy that we’re moving forward, because I think it has made a difference in terms of how we look at different issues. We’re looking at how it affects all people.”
Though he serves on the County Board, Harris represents the Downtown Wausau area and was asked to join a task force to study the issue of policing in Wausau, formed after the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Harris shared that the peaceful protests in Wausau that followed made him proud of his community “in terms of showing what we believe in and in our commitment to wanting to follow that up with real and lasting changes.” According to Harris:
“You have to bring awareness to an issue, but then after that, you have to make sure there is something in place that actually says something: policy. I like to see that when something happens, we respond to it, but we also think about how to make sure that issue is dealt with in a meaningful and thoughtful way more long-term.”
Another issue of importance to Harris that he said affects all residents of Wisconsin is the state’s legislative and Congressional district maps. Harris’s first resolution as supervisor urged the County Board to take a position in calling for nonpartisan redistricting following this year’s census. The resolution was rejected by the board’s Executive Committee — which often means the death of a resolution — but Harris and other supervisors used a procedural move to bring it before the full County Board, where it passed in a close 19-17 vote.
Although he had the support of other supervisors, it was still a bold move for a freshman supervisor, and the type of action Harris felt was akin to the push by the late Congressman John Lewis to cause some “necessary, good trouble.” But it was also a move that Harris said was necessary because “your voice is your vote,” and the importance of fair elections and equal representation is something else passed down through the Harris family by his grandparents, who grew up in Alabama during the Jim Crow era. Harris said on the issues of fair elections:
“It is how we participate. It is how we hold our leaders accountable, and whether you are in a town of 500 or a town of 500,000, your vote shouldn’t be diluted.”
As far as other issues important to Harris in his role as supervisor, he said he’ll continue to advocate for measures that address poverty and homelessness, as well as transportation. For the latter, he’ll be pushing for a pilot program to restart bus service from Wausau to Rib Mountain and, within his own district, adding a bus stop at the 123-unit Island Place Apartments complex. In addition, he serves as Vice Chair on the County’s Transportation Coordinating Committee. Harris said he also supports the concept of a community campus to house a variety of non-profits like Catholic Charities and the Neighbor’s Place in one location. Through his work with Judicare, he’s witnessed firsthand the difficulty some people face when they have to travel between places that offer assistance with housing and food.
Such advocacy is especially challenging in the current coronavirus climate. It’s difficult to help people who need assistance from local government and area non-profits to meet their needs at a time when the County itself is taking a hit to its own budget due to a decline in local taxes and State funding as a result of the pandemic. Discussions over where the County Board chooses to put its resources in its 2021 budget will take place over the next few months. And while there are many deserving causes, Harris shared:
“There won’t be money to go around everywhere, but I do have certain causes that I believe in, and are vital to our community, that I will certainly be fighting for during those budget meetings.”
Beyond the work of the County, and his work with Judicare, Harris said he will also continue efforts to engage younger residents of the community:
“I want to encourage other young people to get involved in local government, to do well in school, and expose them to different careers and connect them with different organizations.”
And it comes full circle…
The young man recruited to work north of Madison has now become the recruiter: William is working with the State Bar of Wisconsin to encourage other young attorneys to serve in underserved areas of the state.
Library Specialist | Marathon County Public Library
Chad Dally is a library specialist with the Marathon County Public Library, where he’s worked since 2012. He splits his time at the library between reference and programming, and generally prefers to read nonfiction over fiction. Email Chad Dally
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