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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Did Morgan Harper get under Tim Ryan's skin in Democratic Senate debate?

U.S. Senate Democratic candidates Morgan Harper, left, and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio,, right, shake hands at the end of Ohio's U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Debate on Monday, March 28, 2022 at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Joshua A. Bickel/AP
POOL The Columbus Dispatch
U.S. Senate Democratic candidates Morgan Harper, left, and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio,, right, shake hands at the end of Ohio's U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Debate on Monday, March 28, 2022 at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.

Finally, on Monday at a debate in Greene County, Morgan Harper, the self-described progressive in Ohio's Democratic U.S. Senate primary, stopped shadow boxing and got to confront her principal opponent, Congressman Tim Ryan, on the same stage and in the same place.

Harper – a Columbus attorney who worked for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during the Obama administration - was there at Central State University in an Ohio Debate Commission event to poke and prod the front-runner Ryan and make sure everyone listening or watching knew that she believes Ryan is a mere mortal, with feet of clay.

Almost every question that was asked of Harper, no matter the subject, was turned around into another opportunity to whack Ryan, mostly over the 20-year congressman's record of taking large amounts of special interest money for his campaigns – including this one.

It could not have been a pleasant hour for Ryan – even though it likely didn't do any lasting damage to his front-runner status.

It may, though, have softened him up a bit.

Harper ran through a litany of campaign contributions Ryan has accepted: $400,000 from companies who do business as defense contractors; money from FirstEnergy, the company now embroiled in the largest bribery scandal in Ohio history; the support of the NRA; etc.

We can imagine the folks at Ohio Democratic Party headquarters cringing every time Harper landed a blow on their guy, the congressman from Trumbull County who represents the Mahoning Valley in the U.S. House. After all, the Ohio Democratic Party gave Ryan its endorsement, after weeks of nasty infighting inside the party.

Ryan has the money and the endorsements in this race. He proved that Tuesday morning when his campaign announced a $3.3 million statewide TV ad buy. All he needs now is to build his persona in other parts of the state where he is not a household name and sit back and watch the dumpster fire which is the Republican U.S. Senate primary.

The last thing the Ohio Democratic Party needed was to have their candidate defined by Harper on a statewide television and radio network that includes WVXU.

Up until Monday, Harper had been aching for a chance to take on Ryan in a debate; and Monday's Ohio Debate Commission event was likely her first and only shot.

Instead, she has engaged in a couple of pointless and off-the-rails debates with Republican candidate for Senate Josh Mandel, who may be the most extreme Donald Trump follower in a field made up mostly of Trump sycophants.

She wanted to go head-to-head with Ryan, but the congressman refused to debate unless all the Democratic candidates were on stage. The Ohio Debate Commission fixed that by inviting the third candidate on the Democratic primary ballot, Traci TJ Johnson.

Monday, Johnson was not a factor. Frankly, she is so little known and so inexperienced as a public speaker that she contributed little to the debate.

Harper got what she was after – a clear path to land blows on Ryan's noggin.

It started early in the debate when Spectrum 1 news anchor and debate moderator Curtis Jackson asked how the U.S. should respond to Russia's attacks on a NATO ally. Harper turned her answer – which amounted to proceed with caution – into throwing a punch at Ryan for taking $400,000 in campaign contributions from the defense industry.

Ryan has always been, in many ways, an old-fashioned, pro-union, populist politician and he responded like one. He told Harper his concern is for the workers in those industries.

“I just want to say Ohio is a state that has tens of thousands of jobs that are directly connected to the defense industry,” Ryan said. “Good paying, union jobs. I don’t think we need to waste money, but I don’t think we need to pull the plug.”

Harper was having none of it.

“To the workers of the state of Ohio, I want you to know very clearly, I stand on your side, and I don’t need to take money from management to do that,” she said.

She poked him for his "A" rating from the National Rifle Association and for taking money from the PAC of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who managed to block President Biden's "Build Back Better" plan.

Ryan was left scratching his head over what the point of the Manchin shot from Harper was all about. And rightly so. He voted for Build Back Better in the House and made no bones about it.

“I welcome support from anyone who wants to support my campaign,” Ryan said. “She also said I wasn’t doing what Joe Manchin wanted me to do. I’m not quite sure what the criticism is here. I’ve been quite vocal about being for all of the elements of Build Back Better.”

The fact is that Harper has an interesting back story and a very good mind.

The 38-year-old Harper was born in Columbus and lived in a foster home for nine months before being adopted by a public school teacher in Columbus. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Tufts University and a Juris Doctor degree from Stanford Law School, which looks good on any lawyer's CV.

Ryan, of course, is no dummy either. You don't survive for as long as Ryan has in Mahoning Valley politics without being tough as nails. He has some clout in the House, as a member of the Appropriations Committee and co-chair of the manufacturing caucus.

People have been waiting for Ryan to run for statewide office for decades now; he's flirted with it many times, but pulled up short until the 2022 election cycle, when it became clear that the Republicans in Columbus would draw a map making it difficult if not impossible for Ryan to win re-election to the House.

He's run some quixotic campaigns – he tried and failed to unseat Nancy Pelosi as House Minority Leader after the 2016 election. And, in 2019, he was briefly a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. That quickly fizzled out and he ran for re-election to the House instead.

Tim Ryan and Morgan Harper are the living, breathing personifications of the great divide in the Democratic Party, the Democratic schism in the flesh.

Ryan is the traditional lunch-bucket Democrat, union endorsed and populist in style, out of the Joe Biden school of Democratic politics. Harper – the representative of the party's progressives— is tied to the Bernie Sanders- Elizabeth Warren wing of the party.

Historically, it's Ryan's wing of the party that usually wins out in Ohio. But Harper is hoping against hope that the day of the progressives is nigh in Ohio. Monday, on a stage at Central State University, she got a chance at long last to test her belief.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.