Representing his home district in the Central Valley just over 30 miles east of campus, Josh Harder ’08 began his first term in Congress in January. His platform of Medicare for All and economic development for Central Valley helped the Stanford alum and former Silicon Valley venture capitalist edge out four-term incumbent Republican Jeff Denham in one of the tightest congressional races of the 2018 elections.
It established Harder as one of the youngest members of House of Representatives and as one of its 11 current Stanford alumni.
The largely rural 10th district of California, which encompasses a slice of the northern San Joaquin Valley and includes the major city of Modesto, is one of the lower-income districts in California, with a median household income of just over $63,000.
“The tenth district is really an area where we have a pragmatic get-stuff-done mentality,” Harder said. “I’m a fifth-generation resident; my great-great-grandfather came out in a wagon train in 1850; I say he came 2,000 miles in search of gold and stopped 50 miles short to become a peach farmer.”
“That’s really the story of a lot of people in our district,” he continued. “We have a lot of folks who work in agriculture — a lot of our economy comes from that — and a lot of immigrants. There is this mentality of coming together regardless of partisanship or ideology to make progress on some of these core issues.”
Harder’s priorities in the 116th Congress include investing in water infrastructure such as drip irrigation and inland desalination plants, increasing funding to schools and technical programs, establishing universal pre-K, supporting federal housing solutions and protecting healthcare entitlements.
Now that he is in office and the shutdown has at least temporarily ended, Harder hopes to pursue that agenda of sustainable economic development for the Central Valley. Born and raised in the district, Harder views national office as a way to tackle local problems — as stated on his campaign website, if the Central Valley of California were its own state, it would be the poorest in the nation.
“That’s unacceptable, and I’m running for Congress because we can and must do better,” he wrote on his website.
Harder ran against the Republican incumbent Denham as a candidate willing to seek bipartisan compromise. He praised an October presidential water memo authorized by President Trump that relaxed environmental regulations in order to get more water to farms, which other Democrats viewed as a strategic measure by the president to aid Denham’s reelection campaign.
“Water is not a Republican or Democrat issue,” he said. “The 20th century paradigm of environmentalists fighting against farmers doesn’t work anymore — we have to get beyond that and serve everyone.”
This bipartisan vision for California convinced some Stanford students to go door-to-door for the candidate in October. Kevin Li ’22, who campaigned for Harder as part of a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote effort inspired by an election-focused political science class, said that he was especially excited by Harder’s support of Medicare for All and proposed economic and political reforms.
“I believe in a country where the rich don’t get to buy more years of life than the poor, where healthcare is a right, where the water and air are clean for all people,” Li said.
Harder attributes his interest in politics to his lifelong preoccupation with equitable economic development. He developed this passion during his time as an economics and political science double major at Stanford and sustained it through careers as an investor and educator.
“What I learned [in college] was really an understanding of the core challenges that I’ve been working on ever since — he only thing that’s changed has been my ideas of mechanisms to solve those problems,” Harder said. “At Stanford, I became very interested in issues of economic development — how do we make sure that every single American and every single person on the globe actually has the chance to work hard and get ahead?”
Harder took many opportunities to study off campus during his time at Stanford, which he says gave him a “nuanced understanding of some of the biggest problems in our community, in our country and in the world.” He participated in the Stanford in Washington program, where he worked at the Treasury Department on Latin American affairs. He also participated in a Stanford program in Tanzania.
In addition to programs away from campus, Harder praised the courses he took about economic history. He said he remembers being particularly inspired by political science and history professor Stephen Haber, who he says inspired him to use his career to pursue economic equality.
“I took [Haber’s] course to understand the history of economic development in Latin America,” said Harder. “It was unbelievable and very powerful for me to see the challenges associated with accelerating growth and making that growth equitable, which Latin America has really struggled with equitable growth and inequality, as has, frankly, America.”
“That core question of creating a system where everyone can get ahead and not just a few people at the top is the core of what I’m trying to do here in Washington,” he continued.
As a piece of advice to Stanford students interested in activism or politics as a means to enact change, Harder said young people should “be more interested in the problem than the particular mechanism or organization to solve it.”
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re working with a nonprofit, a business or government. Just be sure you’re solving a problem you really care about,” Harder said.
As a relatively young congressman, Harder advised that students interested in politics not wait until the “perfect time” to run for public office.
“Don’t question yourself if you want to go jump into something,” he said. “I never thought I’d jump into politics. I loved my job before this, but after the 2016 election my wife and I were shocked and I completely changed my career path and leapt into the race.
“Don’t think about your career on a 50-year timeline,” he continued. “If you see something don’t sit on the sidelines.”
Contact Cooper Veit at cveit ‘at’ stanford.edu.