Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The LuLac Edition #837, June 3rd, 2009



A politician from the 1980s, who was labeled as a “can’t miss” prospect in national Democratic party circles, Frank Harrison, passed away Wednesday at the age of 69. Harrison, a Wilkes Barre native served one term in Congress, 1983 to 1985 representing the 11th Congressional District. Harrison was born in Washington D.C. on February 2nd 1940. The city of his birth would prove to be a lifelong aspiration for his return as a political powerbroker. Harrison was educated in Wilkes Barre City schools, was a graduate of King’s College and attended Harvard Law School. Harrison also had a military career serving as a captain in the U.S. Air Force in the late 60s. Harrison was a popular Government professor at King’s College until his election to Congress in 1982.
If you were a student at King’s College and attended one of Professor Harrison’s college courses, you were treated to an erudite and active exercise in the theory, art and policy aspects of government. Harrison would break down the difference between the actions of a government policy without forgetting to add the critical ingredient of how the rule of law was shaped and formed by the rough and tumble of politics. Harrison’s classes were always filled to capacity. Students attending his classes were impressed by his Kennedy-like demeanor and more than a few of his students followed him when he decided to run for national office. The bachelor professor was also a well known lady’s man about town squiring women to trendy eateries in the Wilkes Barre area. Harrison though attentive to his dates never did pass up an opportunity to work the room. He could charm any woman constituent and though not fluent in sports small talk, knew just enough about high school football to have a conversation with one of the guys.
Harrison’s first opportunity for office came in 1980 when a special election was held for the vacated seat of Congressman Dan Flood. The county Democratic organization endorsed Ray Musto, then a State Representative. A special election was held to fill the remainder of the term and Musto prevailed with Harrison finishing second, and Nanticoke lawyer Paul Kanjorski, Kingston businessman Richard Adams and Congressional staffer Tom Makowski finishing well behind. In the general election and the impending Reagan landslide, Harvey’s Lake resident Jim Nelligan was swept into office putting the 11th Congressional seat in the GOP hands for the first time in twenty years. In 1982, with the Reagan revolution turning rapidly into the Reagan recession, local Democrats felt they had an opening in retaining the seat. Ron Ungvarsky, an Ohio Attorney and Democratic Fundraising operative was an aide in the primary campaign of 1982. That field was packed with a who’s who of local politicos including Dr. Tom O’Donnell, Frank Bonner, Makowski and Kanjorski again as well as a few others. Harrison narrowly defeated Dr. O’Donnell in the primary. Former Congressman Musto opted out of the race instead concentrating on the open State Senate seat of retiring Senator Martin L. Murray. “I served as his aide, driver and schedule guy. After the primary win, that work translated into the 1982 general against Nelligan. Harrison, who sponsored me for the Pennsylvania Bar in 1980 contacted me to work on staff when he got to Washington. My feeling was he needed a local guy with the right sounding last name that could go back and forth to the district and work with constituents. So in effect I was auditioning during the campaign for the job of Congressional aide,” Ungvarsky said.
After his 1982 defeat of Nelligan, Harrison hit the ground running when he got to the city of his birth, Washington, D.C. Ungvarsky followed him as a Legislative Assistant for Special Affairs. The first year, Harrison and his staff worked very closely with both Senators Heinz and Specter to solve the nagging problem of the Centraiia Mine Fire. “Our goal was to at least get something of value, not full value for sure for those displaced home owners. Harrison worked very hard on that and to be honest, his efforts and contributions to that rebuilding effort were lost to history” noted Ungvarsky.
In Washington, D.C. Harrison’s affability and intelligence caught the notice of the House Democratic Leadership. One member particularly taken with the rookie lawmaker was Florida Congressman Claude Pepper. Pepper was grooming Harrison for a seat on the House Rules Committee and House Speaker Tip O’Neil was a big booster of Harrison. All seemed well for the first term Congressman. He had a good staff at home handling constituent services, was visible on both the national and local media circuits, had great name recognition in the district and was poised to make inroads with important and powerful Democratic leaders who were willing to give him the clout of Dan Flood in a considerably shorter time frame. But back home, in Luzerne County the ominous political clouds were brewing up a perfect political storm.
As the 1984 Democratic primary approached, Harrison found himself in the middle of a few obstacles. The first was the division of the Democratic Party. Eugene Hudak, the Luzerne County Clerk of Courts was angry at the local Democratic leadership of former Senator Martin L. Murray. Hudak was a long time antagonist of the Democratic power structure. Efforts to defeat him were useless since he always came out of Nanticoke with a lion’s share of votes. Hudak got behind his fellow hometown boy Paul Kanjorski who was now making his third run for the seat of Dan Flood. In the meantime, in the fall of 1983, local residents were plagued with a water crisis. Apparently some type of bug got into the water supply and residents fell prone to the disease dubbed giardiasis. As the locals were boiling their water in big pots and pans, Harrison was on a Congressional trip with the Democratic delegation to the Costa Rica to study international relations in Latin America. Even though it was an honor to be selected by the leadership for the trip, the perception of the Congressman jetting off to a sunny land while his voters back home dealt with a harsh winter and bum water was not a good omen for Harrison. In that 1984 primary were Harrison, Kanjorski, Gene Knox and Steve Flood. Kanjorski picked as his political consultant Ed Mitchell who earlier ran for a seat in the 10th Congressional District against Joe McDade and competed for Flood’s seat in the 11th against a crowded field in the early rounds of Harrison vs. Kanjorski. Harrison had as his consultant Bob Kutler, a Washington D.C. operative known for not wearing socks and not suffering fools gladly. Kutler bragged about not knowing the local political power brokers while Mitchell massaged them on a regular basis. Mitchell also put together a series of fast paced ads featuring Caribbean music in the background asking the question “Where Was Frank?” referring to the Congressman’s foreign affairs trip. The ads resonated and put Harrison on the defensive. He never recovered. Kanjorski was portrayed as the local, hometown earnest young lawyer from the ultimate coal town, Nanticoke while Harrison was tagged as a Harvard educated elitist who had lost touch with his district. At the time, Ed Mitchell was quoted as saying, “We fundamentally controlled the dialogue throughout the campaign, framed the debate and kept Harrison on the defensive.” On election day, Kanjorski won his hometown by 3,000 votes (Nanticoke) while Harrison carried Wilkes Barre by only 700 votes. District wide, Kanjorski won by 2,000 votes and never looked back serving in Congress since 1984. “We ran a poor campaign for a lot of reasons” said Ungvarsky. “What we couldn’t translate to the voters was the importance future assignments Harrison would be in line for by his relationships with the House leaders. The problem was it did not transfer over to the voters. Harrison always felt that while Dan Flood built a tremendous base for the district in terms of roads and hospitals, the role of Congressman should be looking at a larger economic picture and not putting band aids on problems already in place. His vision was a bit different and perhaps he was too cerebral for the taste of local politicos. Harrison wanted to look beyond the coal fields heritage and truly expand the area to big Fortune 500 companies but he never got the chance to play out his vision” said Ungvarsky. David DeCosmo, former radio and TV journalist, who ironically broke the Giardiasis story remembers Harrison “As a straight forward guy”. He said, “Harrison recognized the political climate at the time. Whoever was going to succeed Flood could expect to be there a long time. He always answered every question put to him, was very opinionated even if that was often at odds with the general consensus of the time, was very available to all of the media and at the heart of it all was a very, very kind man”. DeCosmo agreed that it was Giardiasis, with its wide ranging implications, brought down the career of Frank Harrison. (Not to mention launching the career of Ed Mitchell as a political consultant). A devastated Harrison conceded the morning after election at 11AM and then retreated to the seventh floor of the Sheraton Crossgates Hotel (now the Ramada) holing himself up there for days. Aides conceded Harrison ran too soft a campaign against Kanjorski and Harrison said so himself at the time. “I wasn’t about to get into a shouting match with him (Kanjorski), I am who I am” according to an April 12th, 1984 edition of the Times Leader.
After serving out his term, Harrison returned briefly to King’s and the law firm of Rosenn, Jenkins and Greenwald, then moved to Texas where he spent many years out of the political spotlight.
Frank J. Pasquini, a local resident and nationally recognized Director of Corporate Giving and Fundraising at various educational institutions in the area had a reunion of sorts with Harrison a few years back in San Antonio. “I was chairing a national educational conference on stewardship and donor relations in that area” said Pasquini. “I asked Frank to be the keynote speaker to the group and he did not disappoint. He was urbane, articulate and truly impressive. We kept in touch sporadically because Frank was not a fan of e mail. But we talked about this community, how it was on the rebound and how we were doing. Not many people know this but Frank came back to King’s once a year to work with a project very close to his heart, King’s College’s participation in the National Forensics competition. I often think if we were blessed to have him back in this community how much he could have contributed. Look at his track record before leaving the area, he was involved in United Way and other organizations but I think he found a home at Trinity University as a professor and advisor to the Forensics Union. He was a Renaissance Man in every sense of the word. I am saddened and distressed because without exaggeration, another one of our local icons has gone from us too soon” concluded Pasquini.
Congressman Paul Kanjorski said this about his former political warrior. “As we mourn the loss of Congressman Frank Harrison, I pass along my thoughts and prayers to his family and friends. Frank and I knew each other as college debaters. Since first meeting him, and throughout our professional careers, I have always respected Frank for his strong intellectual abilities. After his political career, he joined the classroom as a college professor where he benefited the education and lives of many students. He will be missed.” The three time political battles between Kanjorski and Harrison are often compared to a local version of the Ali-Frazier heavyweight match ups.
News of his death brings back memories of a short but bright political career that was done in by a number of forces beyond the man or candidate himself. With all due respect to Congressman Kanjorski’s tenure, one must wonder what life would be like here in the 11th Congressional District if Frank Harrison’s political career had not been stymied.


At 1:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Yonki,

Of course you disagree with the poster condemning Corbett. You are consistently an apologist for WILK and the hosts. You never go against them and to me its beginning to have an effect on your credibility. I understand a working agreement is in your best interest, but perhaps you should step back. If a competitive talk station in the market had trouble regarding two hosts, rest assured Steve Corbett would be demanding an investigation. You are responsible for what you put on the air disclaimer or not!Fool me once...

At 4:40 AM, Blogger Gort said...

A great post from our local political historian.

At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Frank Harrison's problem with the local electroate was that he projected an image of being better than the average guy. We are a strange area, look at the Chris Doherty situation in the Lac. So many people said the Mayor was too good for them. And they voted for DeBilio, who was not as intelligent because he was a regular guy. Regular guys make nice neighbors but not great leaders. Harrison never projected himself as a regular guy and that did him in.

At 11:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harrison was a great and gifted man. The ironic thing about the giardiasis crisis was that Harrison couldn't do anything about it anyway but the perception was he was living it up while residents were being infected by beaver dung in their water. As Dave DeCosmo pointed out in Yonk's article, rthe crisis had a far reaching effect because of the installation of filtering plants. Good guy, slow response to a local issue.

At 12:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an analogy with Kanjo and Harrison and Frazier and Ali. The guys faced off with each other three times and Kanjorski's team in 1984 saw an opening and went to town.

At 1:26 PM, Blogger Coal Region Voice said...

Chris Matthews says we want our leaders to be like us, but just a little bit better than us. I think with Harrison, the gap was to great to bridge.

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frank Harrison was in fact being groomed by the Democratic house leadership. Yonk's article and research on this matter is excellant. Like Mr. Ungvarsky stated accurately, his campaign for reelkection could not translate the importance of Mr. Harrison's respect and regard n D.C. back to the 11th.

At 2:28 PM, Blogger David Yonki said...

Of course you disagree with the poster condemning Corbett.

At 3:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Heil Hitler!

Down with free speech!

At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's difficult for most political observers to accept, and that would include me, that Frank Harrison's fate was likely sealed by "Beaver Fever," as giardiasis became known hereabouts.

We love to pick, poke, dissect, bisect, and reverse engineer every political success and failure, to enumerate the countless things a politician did wrong or right. With Frank, the one thing he did wrong was not get on a plane immediately and fly back into district to calm nerves and address the bacteria that never did eat NE PA.

That was it. Too plain? Too simple? Understatement?

Nope, not at all. It was that one misstep that cost him what could have been a long run in congress, and a long stretch of public service. Frank Harrison's fatal mistake also had another impact; it launched the fledgling career of one Ed Mitchell.

It was a tough lesson learned the hard way, and you have to believe that others have used it as part of their play book during the intervening years.

At 8:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yonki, I get this feeling that somewhere in the LuLac archives you have elementary school pictures of Jesus! Great find for that photo of a definite big 3 of the 80s.

At 9:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice article on the short lived Congressman. Met him once on the trail in 1984 and he was very nice. Really should have fought back harder but I don't think it was in his nature.

At 9:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So the editor isn't allowed to edit and his every opinion is questioned by certain posters? Seems to me some posters should start their own blogs where they can set the rules and rant to their hearts content.

Get over yourself.

At 12:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey 5:11PM, Great thoughts. History does turn on the most simple twists of fate. We tend to plot out conspiracy theories I think to kid ourselves that our very existance relies on one tiny bit of fate or a path not traveled.

At 2:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came to know Frank as a colleague in the debate community. He was, without a doubt, one of the finest people whom I have ever met. He was a man of genuine integrity. His death is a great loss.


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