Mark Harris defended Tuesday his relationship with Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless, the man at the heart of the investigation into absentee by mail fraud in the still-uncalled 9th Congressional District race.
In an interview with WFAE at his south Charlotte house, Harris said he and Dowless talked frequently during their two campaigns about what Harris called Dowless' “unusual” absentee by mail “program.” He said Dowless often gave him updates on how many absentee mail ballots had been requested, and Harris — a former pastor — said they had a close relationship.
“You know I guess you could say I almost took on a pastorly role to McCrae Dowless," Harris said. "I found him to be a very enjoyable man who I chatted with, and again, everyone that I had talked to seemed to respect him and seemed to love him. I had no reason to think otherwise.”
Harris spoke with WFAE and other media outlets Tuesday after he set off a fire alarm at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center Monday night.
Harris was there attending a meeting of Mecklenburg Republicans. When the meeting ended, a number of reporters were waiting outside the room.
Harris said he wanted to go home and watch the Alabama-Clemson football game, and asked a security guard if there was a back way out. Harris said he was told he could use a back staircase, and that it was OK if he set off an alarm when he exited the building.
Harris called the exit a "rookie mistake."
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNC9) January 8, 2019
Harris spoke about how he first became involved with Dowless.
Two years ago, Dowless worked for Todd Johnson, one of Harris’ opponents in the 2016 Republican primary, helping him get 221 out of 226 absentee by mail votes in Bladen County.
Harris narrowly lost that primary to Robert Pittenger. Harris says he asked an attorney whether that lopsided result for Johnson was correct.
“And I raised the question then, well, is there not something in Bladen County that may have occurred here because I see that Todd Johnson won this pretty handily, could some of those votes have gone to me?” Harris said.
Harris says he was told the result was OK.
The Washington Post has reported that people close to Harris told him that there was likely fraud in Bladen County that cost him the race.
Though Harris says he was personally curious about the absentee mail results, he says the Post report isn’t correct, and that people close to him did not tell him there had been any fraud.
“No I mean, only that people would say is that it was unusual," he said. "And I think we all agreed on that.”
Harris said he decided to hire Dowless a year later, after meeting with a number of Bladen County politicians, including Commissioner Ray Britt. He says they met in Britt’s furniture store.
He says everyone there vouched for Dowless, and that Dowless himself explained how his “program” worked.
He says Dowless told him he and his employees would knock on people's doors and ask if they wanted to vote absentee by mail. They would then bring those requests to the Bladen County Board of Elections.
Harris said Dowless told him they would never collect absentee mail ballots from voters. That’s illegal — and there have been numerous interviews from voters and Dowless employees who have said such ballot harvesting happened frequently.
In November 2016, state elections board investigators also interviewed two Dowless employees who said they collected absentee mail ballots in that year's presidential election. That report wasn't made public until December 2018.
Dowless’s first race for Harris was the 2018 primary, where Harris beat Pittenger. In Bladen County, Dowless delivered — getting Harris 437 absentee mail votes to Pittenger’s 12.
In the WFAE interview, Harris was asked whether he should have been more skeptical of those results, and ask himself whether it was too good to be true. He referred again to the uniqueness of the so-called program.
“No, because — again — if you back to the program, and when I was, as you said, sold on this program, that he was going to do, which, again had been verified as legal and was following the letter of the law, and it was relationships that nobody else was focusing on that," Harris said. "So why would I expect that success was a bad thing?”
Since the scandal broke, Harris said he hasn’t spoken to Dowless since early December.
He said Dowless first called him on Nov. 27, when the elections board first declined to certify the elections results.
Harris said Dowless called him to say, "What in the world (is happening)?"
Harris has not spoken at all to Andy Yates, who leads the Red Done Group, a political consultant working for Harris who paid Dowless.
The Red Dome Group has been given a subpoena from the elections board, along with Dowless and the Harris campaign.
Harris was asked whether he would hire Dowless again if Dowless had been found to have illegally collected absentee mail ballots, and then completed whatever punishment he was given by prosecutors.
Harris said he couldn’t address a hypothetical of what Dowless did or didn’t do.
“That’s a hypothetical, and I’m careful not to get into hypotheticals because there is an on-going investigation," he said.
There is no elections board investigation until Jan. 31, when a newly appointed board is enacted by law. That board will decide whether to call for a new election – or certify Harris as the winner.
Harris believes the board should continue investigating to determine if there was any fraud. But he says his 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready is larger than all of the absentee mail votes he received in Bladen and Robeson counties combined.
But what if Dowless and his employees did more than illegally harvest ballots? What if they destroyed ballots that were marked for McCready?
Harris said it depends on how many ballots would have been destroyed.
“Well again I think you have to look at the number, I think the people involved — and I’ve said this from the beginning — if any laws have been broken, then they should be prosecuted," Harris said. "And I believe that with all of my heart."
If you want to read more about politics from WFAE's Steve Harrison, check out the new political newsletter Inside Politics. You can subscribe to it here.