As House of Representatives Convenes, There’s One Empty Seat

Mark Harris, a Republican and a Southern Baptist preacher from the Charlotte area, led his Democratic opponent by 905 votes in November.

If all had gone as he hoped, Mark Harris would have been sworn in to the House of Representatives Thursday as the new member from North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District.

Instead, as the new House was installed, Mr. Harris, a Southern Baptist preacher and staunch conservative, was far from Washington and his seat still up for grabs. There are increasing worries it could remain vacant for months.

Mr. Harris, whose election is now in limbo because of fraud allegations against one of his campaign contractors, instead spent much of the day at another government office. He was being interviewed by elections investigators in Raleigh looking into the unusual handling of absentee ballots by the contractor, L. McCrae Dowless Jr.

Standing outside the investigators’ offices, Mr. Harris expressed his disappointment.

“I am the one seat remaining of the 435 to be seated,” he said, in remarks to reporters broadcast by WSOC-TV, the ABC affiliate in Charlotte. “We kind of find ourselves in no-man’s land, if you will, and we have asked the court to step in.”

Also Thursday, lawyers for Mr. Harris filed a petition in Wake County Superior Court in Raleigh demanding that he be named the victor in the race while the investigation unfolds. No hearing date has been set.

Mr. Harris led his Democratic opponent Dan McCready, a Marine veteran and business owner, by 905 votes on Nov. 6.

But the state’s elections board declined to certify the election following allegations of possible absentee-vote tampering in two rural counties, throwing the outcome of the election, and the congressional seat, into limbo.

Fingers have been pointed at a get-out-the-vote effort led by Mr. Dowless, a felon who was being paid as a contractor by the Harris campaign. Mr. Harris has denied wrongdoing but acknowledged that he directed the hiring of Mr. Dowless, a political operative in rural Bladen County who previously had been the focus of scrutiny following allegations of election tampering.

The state’s failure to certify a winner and the decision, instead, to open an investigation, has roiled North Carolina politics.

Mr. Harris and his two lawyers met for nearly two hours with the elections board’s executive director, Kim Westbrook Strach, and an investigator. “We appreciate his cooperation in the ongoing investigation,” said Ms. Strach in an emailed statement.

In his own statement, Mr. Harris said he appreciated the staff’s courtesy and “support their efforts in getting the answers we all deserve. I look forward to a resolution soon so I can do what I was elected to do in Congress and be a voice for the people of the Ninth District.”

A Democrat who had served as chairman of the elections board, Joshua D. Malcolm, had complained that Mr. Harris had not been sufficiently responsive to a subpoena from the board. But Mr. Harris’s lawyer, David Freedman, also in an emailed statement, said that Mr. Harris “continues to be completely transparent and fully cooperative.”

The investigation has been complicated by the unrelated dissolution of the appointed board that oversees the elections office, the result of a longstanding partisan disagreement in North Carolina.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said last week that Democrats would not seat Mr. Harris. “In this instance, the integrity of our democratic process outweighs concerns about the seat being vacant at the start of the new Congress,” he said.

As both the investigation and the legal case filed by Mr. Harris’s camp move forward, local politicians seem all but certain that a special election will be called.

Anticipating that, one organization, the Progressive Turnout Project, has posted on a “help wanted” website used by liberal groups:

“Progressive Turnout Project (PTP) seeks applicants for an in-district operations director in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, in preparation for a potential special election to take place in 2019. This is a great opportunity for experienced field staff looking to take the next step in their career and gain operational experience.”

A spokeswoman for the organization, Priyal Amin, said the Progressive Turnout Project is “following this race very closely and just want to be prepared in event that there is an election held” in the district. The job won’t be filled until an election date is set, Ms. Amin said in an email.

Some Republicans believe that, given the allegations, Mr. Harris would have a tricky path to victory, even in a primary, if one is called. But two of his most formidable potential rivals for the Republican nomination have firmly said that they do not intend to run for the Ninth District seat.

“Regardless of the determination of the evidentiary hearing, I will not be a candidate in a possible primary election,” Representative Robert M. Pittenger, who Mr. Harris defeated in last May’s Republican primary, said in a statement this week.

And former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, has repeatedly said that he has no plans to run. The decisions by both men could clear a path for other Republicans to challenge Mr. Harris.

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