Jon Harper: Connecting With People

Jon Harper
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On a hot summer night this past July, the owner of a Bluff, Utah, restaurant walked up to a customer’s table and jokingly asked, “Where’s my campaign T-shirt?” Jon Harper, who is running for Utah attorney general, was puzzled. “How did you know who I am?” he asked. The man said he had seen Harper’s campaign bus – a large 1960s era touring bus, wrapped with Harper’s campaign logo and photograph – parked over in Montezuma Creek earlier that day.

“That was my first major trip in the Harper bus, so I wasn’t used to people recognizing me on the campaign trail yet,” Harper says. “It happens a lot, now. The bus has become something of a celebrity in its own right.”

The big bus has taken Harper and his campaign team from Box Elder and Cache counties in northern Utah, to the Four Corners area of San Juan County, across to Washington County, up to Duchesne County and to every county in between. Along the way, Harper stops at small cafes, farms and ranches, industrial businesses and mom and pop stores, county fairs, school campuses and private homes to listen to people’s stories and learn how he can improve the lives of everyday Utahns as attorney general.

The guiding force for Harper’s campaign is the advice of his friend, the late U.S. Congressman Bill Orton: “If you can’t make time to sit down and listen to real people outside of the political bubble – the voters who actually elect you – you’ve got no business running for public office.”

“Consistent with that advice, I’m trying to meet Utah citizens one-on-one all over the state and understand the difficulties they face, so that I can most effectively prioritize my work as Utah’s attorney general,” Harper says. “I hear from a lot of people that they don’t believe they are being heard or supported by the current attorney general. That’s why I’m running. Utahns deserve a more open, accessible advocate.”

Harper’s first campaign bus trip included a visit to Montezuma Creek on Utah’s impoverished Navajo Reservation, attending a hearing in Bluff-regarding the Bears Ears National Monument proposal with U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and meetings with tribal elders, community leaders and citizens. He also checked in on Camp Einstein and Camp Shakespeare, the summer science and reading camps for Navajo students for which he is a benefactor. Harper also spent time with teachers and San Juan County education administrators. He listened to their concerns regarding challenges meeting Navajo students’ educational needs in the face of staffing hurdles, the highest poverty rates in the country and the lowest literacy and employment rates in the state.

These challenges led Harper to invest in the summer academic enrichment camps. The camps are free for students and are volunteer-run. In addition to the educational benefits, students also receive healthy snacks and lunches each day while school lunches are suspended for the summer.

“Few Utahns, who are some of the most philanthropic people in the world, realize that these Third World problems are prevalent in their own backyards,” he says. “It’s critical for elected officials to stay in close contact with the people they represent. Everyone has a story, and their needs are real. The attorney general can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives if he or she has the wisdom and courage to stand up and fight for the people who elected them.”

The People’s Attorney

A 1979 graduate of Georgetown University’s law school, Harper’s legal practice has largely been spent in public service and representing everyday people who have been treated unfairly by large corporations that have crossed the line. He has developed expertise in consumer class actions and corporate governance matters, often suing boards of directors for breach of their fiduciary duty to their corporations and shareholders.

Harper’s passion for public interest law was first stoked during law school, clerking for the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and participating in a public interest law firm through Georgetown’s clinical program. Once out of law school, he joined the highly regarded Salt Lake City law firm of Parsons Behle & Latimer, where he received valuable mentoring and experience, largely defending corporate clients being sued for employment discrimination. But when he left that firm and filed his first lawsuit on behalf of an individual, an age discrimination case against Western Airlines in the early 1980s, Harper knew he had found his calling.

Aside from his eight years of public service as associate dean of the University of Utah law school, the balance of his years in private practice has been spent largely on complex litigation matters filed in Utah and other parts of the country.

“I have protected consumers and policyholders in nationwide class actions against a number of large corporations, and successfully represented investors in numerous breach of fiduciary duty actions against corporate board members,” Harper adds.

While handling a demanding full-time practice, he also has regularly taken on pro bono cases to help people in need of legal assistance who could not afford an attorney, including cancer victims whose insurance companies initially refused to pay for treatment. He counts these cases as among the most satisfying of his 37-year career.

A Capstone, Not a Stepping Stone

His strong pride in the legal profession prompted Harper to run for attorney general of Utah. “I ran to continue my work as an attorney for the people by standing up for the people of Utah and restoring the public trust in the attorney general’s office,” he says.

As an attorney, Harper is embarrassed by the corruption allegations brought against previous holders of the attorney general’s office.

“I don’t particularly appreciate lawyer jokes and I regret that the public continues to view the Utah Attorney General’s Office as validating the lawyer jokes,” Harper says. “What is going on reflects poorly on our profession. Even as I’m shaking hands with people on parade routes, they call out, laughingly, ‘Promise us you’ll stay out of jail.’ The current attorney general has broken his promises to be transparent and reform the office. Utah deserves an attorney general with the courage to stand up to party leaders and big donors and actually represent the people who elected him.

“My service as attorney general,” he continues, “will be a capstone to my lengthy legal career and not a stepping stone to higher political office.”

Exploring the World

Harper’s penchant for people isn’t limited to his professional life. He is an inveterate traveler and adventurer who enjoys learning about different countries and cultures. For example, he biked across the Czech Republic, from Vienna to Prague, with his daughter, Annie, who is now 25 years old but was a teenager at the time of the trip. He visited Mongolia in the mid-1990s after the Russians had pulled out, sponsored by that country’s chief judicial administrator. And he walked the Abraham Path from southern Turkey to Damascus, Syria, in late 2008, never imagining that a tragic civil war was on the horizon.

“The relics and history of Syria are nothing short of fascinating,” Harper says. “I’ve traveled to many countries around the world, and I found the Syrian people to be some of the most friendly and generous people I’ve ever met. Th e many deaths and virtual destruction of that country are tragic to the highest degree.”

When it comes to the world, his greatest passion is for Latin America. Harper has visited most of the Latin American countries and owns a home in a small fishing village in Mexico. His passion evolved from the foreign language requirement in college.

“I decided on Spanish but learning grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary was so boring that I dropped out and traveled on my own down near Mexico City to knock out the language requirement in one swoop,” he says. “I enrolled in a language school there, lived with a local family and immersed myself in learning the language.”

Aft er three months, Harper was conversational in Spanish and returned to college. He began taking courses relating to Latin American history, politics and anthropology.

“Having just been in Mexico, it was fascinating,” he says. “I immediately turned around and signed up for a school trip to study the Mexican Revolution. We traveled all over the Republic of Mexico.”

Finding the Law

Harper, whose ancestral roots run deep in the state, comes from a family of educators, which might help explain his strong passion for learning about the world. He didn’t grow up wanting to be an attorney, but loved history and had a secret dream of becoming a history professor. He earned his undergraduate degree in history with a certificate in Latin American studies. It was the dream of being a professor that helped lead him to the law, or “fall into it” as he describes it.

“I visited Stanford to discuss a graduate program and learned about their joint degree program in law and Latin American studies,” Harper says. “The possibility for me was intriguing because I had just taken the LSAT as a warmup for the graduate school exam and scored very high. I also looked around at other joint programs and found Georgetown’s program in law and foreign service, and opted for Georgetown because of the foreign service aspect, but not originally with the idea of going to law school to practice law.”

Along the way, however, he developed a growing affinity for public interest law and got on track to become a practicing attorney.

Outside the Office

Away from the campaign trail, Harper, who is an avid sports fan, enjoys following Utah college sports. He is devoted to spending time with his family and loves to travel with them. His 17-year-old son, Jake, is in his final year of high school and his daughter is an educational administrator at Friends School in New York City. Until recently, Harper’s wife, Denise, was a criminal prosecutor in the Attorney General’s Office. She currently works on his campaign.

Judgment and Independence

When asked what he has learned during his successful law practice that will make him a strong attorney general, Harper says he learned the importance of judgment, which he will bring to the position.

“Judgment is what clients need and pay for when they hire an attorney,” he says. “An attorney sometimes has to give a client advice the client doesn’t like. But that advice is critical. Over my years in private practice and public service, I believe I’ve developed the mature judgment and independent outlook needed to advise the state like a lawyer should. Utah needs a lawyer in the attorney general position – not another career politician.”

In his practice, Harper has represented and worked successfully with individuals without regard to political affiliation.

“I’ve represented Utah’s Speaker of the House Republican Greg Hughes in his business interests, and while our political views differ in a number of instances, that doesn’t and shouldn’t matter when it comes to solving legal problems,” he says. “And I had the unique honor of representing Republican U.S. Senator Jake Garn as the class representative in a nationwide class action against Conseco Life Insurance Company on behalf of nearly 100,000 policyholders who had been treated unfairly. We worked very well and very successfully together.

“I will bring my experience, judgment and independence to the position of attorney general, to represent the interests of the people, not the interests of party leaders or large donors,” Harper continues. “My overriding objective is to restore the public trust and bring transparency back to the office. Utahns want and deserve to have complete trust that the Attorney General’s Office is enforcing our laws fairly and in the people’s best interests.”

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