Backstories | Our Occasional Series Profiling Legislators and Their Personal Journeys to the Statehouse
By Suzanne Weiss
Napoleon Harris cherishes his role as the legislative voice of Chicago’s 9th Ward and the demographically diverse string of small cities and townships to the southwest, in which he has deep roots.
“This south-suburban area is a hidden gem that a guy like myself, with help from others, can turn around,” he says. Elected without opposition to his third term in the Illinois Senate in 2018, Harris says he continues to focus on “enacting legislation that helps communities grow, change and get stronger.”
Harris, 39, grew up in the hardscrabble towns of Dixmoor and Harvey—both are just south of Chicago—where his mother, a hair stylist, struggled to make ends meet after his father died. An honor student and standout athlete in high school, Harris had scholarship offers from all over the country but chose Northwestern University for its highly rated communications program—plus its proximity to his family.
Following his senior year in 2002, Harris was a first-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders and went on to play seven seasons at linebacker for the Raiders, the Minnesota Vikings and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Throughout his playing career he always found time to return to Harvey—working out at his old high school, spending time with neighborhood kids and opening a pair of Beggars Pizza restaurants, along with a summer job-training program.
After Harris retired from professional football in 2009, he and his wife, Nicole, a nurse, decided to put down roots in his hometown.
Harris says that, growing up, he found a strong role model in Harold Washington, who in 1983 was the first African American to be elected mayor of Chicago. “He was commanding, intelligent, illuminating—a man of real quality who did so much for people,” Harris says. “I looked at him and thought, if he can do it, so can I.”
In 2012, Harris, a Democrat, was elected to an open seat in the Illinois Senate. Among the first bills he successfully sponsored was one providing new protections for high school athletes, including concussion protocols, and catastrophic accident insurance for students injured during high school athletic events.
Over the years, he has played a key role in advancing legislation on urban flooding, K-12 school disciplinary policies and community banks. He chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and serves on committees handling commerce and economic development, telecommunications, insurance and pensions, and transportation.
Harris says his biggest frustration is “not being able to get things done quickly, mostly because of partisan politics. You know, in football, it’s X’s and O’s, everything’s accounted for, and you can see the fruits of your labor. The nature of politics is different—everything takes longer. So I put a lot of focus on getting people to talk to one another.”
He is particularly proud of having sponsored a recently enacted requirement that all public postsecondary institutions in the state offer a course in African American history. “Education is the only way we can combat negative stereotypes seen on the news, social media and in movies,” he says. “It should be a priority for our universities to offer a course that teaches students about our culture and the contributions we’ve made to society.”
In 2016, Harris made an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat that Tammy Duckworth went on to win. Will he run again for higher office? “It’s always a possibility, if the opportunity presents itself,” he says.
“I do know that I don’t see myself staying in the [General] Assembly for the next 30 years. I’m looking at making way for the next generation of leaders. New people and new ideas are essential.”
As a newly elected member of the Missouri General Assembly, Wayne Wallingford was asked which committees he wanted to serve on. “‘All of ’em,’ I said, and I was only half-joking,” he recalls.
Nine years later, Wallingford’s appetite for the nuts and bolts of legislative work—digging into issues, holding hearings, introducing bills, moving them forward—remains undiminished.
Indeed, rather than giving it all up next year, when he is term-limited out of the Senate, he’s decided to restart the clock by running for what will be an open House seat in his southeast Missouri district.
“I’ve never been in favor of term limits. You just lose so much when people are forced to move on—knowledge, experience, institutional memory, the relationships you’ve built up,” says Wallingford, a Republican who over the course of his life has been a career Air Force officer, a college professor and a corporate executive. “Besides, I’m not ready to retire.”
A native of Geneva, Ill., Wallingford, earned a bachelor’s degree in business and completed an officer-training program at the University of Nebraska. In 1970, he was sent to Thailand for what would be the first of five deployments during the Vietnam War, serving as a navigator aboard the B-52 Stratofortress, a long-range strategic bomber, for more than 300 missions.
On one of the last of those missions, his plane was hit by antiaircraft flak and limped back to base with nearly 700 holes in the fuselage. “The plane got the Purple Heart. The crew members didn’t. I liked it that way,” he says.
In 1985 he was offered a position as professor of aerospace science at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, a picturesque Mississippi River town where he and his family decided to settle down.
In 1990, Wallingford returned to combat, serving six tours as an intelligence officer in Iraq during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He retired in 1993 at the rank of lieutenant colonel, having earned 47 medals, including the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
For most of his life, Wallingford says, he had only a passing interest in politics. But a business acquaintance’s suggestion that he think about running for office piqued his interest. In 2010, Wallingford was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives, where he served one term before running for—and winning—an open Senate seat.
Wallingford has racked up a solid legislative record, successfully sponsoring major bills in areas ranging from juvenile justice reform to transportation to public employee retirement funding. He currently chairs the Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and Environment Committee, serves on four other standing committees and several study panels, and in 2018 was elected assistant majority floor leader.
Three of his biggest victories have come in the last two legislative sessions: a $100 million road and bridge reconstruction package, a bill raising the age of those considered adult offenders from 17 to 18 and the establishment of a state funding mechanism for 911 emergency services—which Missouri was the only state in the nation not to have done over the years.
At 73, Wallingford shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to his legislative duties, he is the “chief people officer” (aka HR director) for McDonald’s southeast Missouri operations and serves on the board of more than a dozen nonprofit organizations.
He is looking forward to running for the House seat in his district next year, even though he faces a serious challenge in the Republican primary from a former Cape Girardeau city councilman. “It’s not going to be easy, I know,” he says. “But that’s OK—I’m up for it.”
Robert Lee Dickey
Legislating is a lot like farming, says Robert Lee Dickey III, who knows a thing or two about both. A good yield, in his view, requires “discipline, patience, hard work, reinvestment and long-term perspective.”
Dickey is a fourth-generation peach and timber grower who was named the 2019 Georgia state winner of Sunbelt Ag Expo’s Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award.
He describes serving in the state House of Representatives for the past eight years as “one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.” His legislative work in areas ranging from early-childhood education to rural economic development has given him the opportunity to “help make Georgia a better place to live—and you can’t beat that.”
Agriculture, politics and public service are in Dickey’s blood. His great-grandfather—who began cultivating peaches in the heavy clay soil of central Georgia in 1897—served in the state legislature, as did one of his uncles, and Dickey’s father was a county commissioner.
“Being a legislator was something that I’ve always wanted to do, and I came pretty close to running many years ago,” he says. “But now I’m glad I waited until later in life to do this. I’m much better at being able to balance the demands on my time and energy than I would have been back then.”
From that first small orchard planted by Dickey’s great-grandfather, Dickey Farms has grown into a 4,000-acre spread, spanning several counties, on which the family produces peaches, pecans, strawberries and specialty crops, and manages a large expanse of timberland. The farm is home to the state’s oldest continuously operating peach packinghouse, a thriving retail and mail-order business, and a growing agritourism program.
Over the years, Dickey has made many changes on the farm while honoring his family’s history. To increase energy efficiency and reduce water use, the farm has transitioned to low-volume drip irrigation. Its 100,000 peach trees are still planted in traditional rows, but the areas between them are maintained in sod—an environmentally friendly practice that prevents erosion, adds organic matter to the soil and provides habitat for beneficial insects.
Running the farm is a family endeavor. Dickey’s wife of 41 years, Cynde, is the farm’s chief financial officer; his son, Lee, manages the farm’s food-safety program and the installation of new trees and specialty crops; and his daughter-in-law, Stacy, oversees marketing, retail and educational services. His 91-year-old father, known as “Mr. Bob,” is “the farm’s biggest cheerleader and a wonderful mentor for me and my son.” Dickey, a Republican, won a three-way race for an open legislative seat in a 2011 special election. He has run unopposed for reelection every two years since.
Agriculture is Georgia’s leading industry but, mirroring a decades-long national trend, the number of farmers serving in the legislature has steadily decreased to just six in the Senate and 10 in the House currently. “There’s just a handful of us, but we’re all pulling in the same direction,” Dickey says. “Our biggest challenge here in Georgia is to stay economically competitive, so it’s vital to have the experience and ideas of farmers taken into account.”
As chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, Dickey has earned a reputation as a champion of greater investment in early-childhood education, higher salaries for teachers and restoration of higher education funding to pre-Great Recession levels. He has also led several efforts to support economic development in rural counties, from expanding access to high-speed internet to bolstering programs that supply locally grown produce for school cafeterias.
Dickey says his schedule during each year’s legislative session is “pretty intense,” including a daily three-hour round trip between the farm and Atlanta four or five days a week. “Fortunately, I’m blessed with a supportive family who’ve made sacrifices in time and energy so that I can be away so much from January through March.”
Suzanne Weiss is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to State Legislatures magazine.