PHILADELPHIA — Paul Harris will tell anyone willing to listen why he joined the GOP and how he became the first black Republican in the Virginia Legislature since Reconstruction.
Monday night, he gets a chance to tell the nation.
For about three minutes on the opening night of the Republican National Convention, Harris, 36, will discuss his ascent from public housing to the General Assembly seat once held by Thomas Jefferson.
"We didn't have two pennies to rub together back then," Harris said. "What we did have, though, was a sense of community. I'd come home and see a brown paper bag on the doorstep filled with canned food, and we'd go to church and people would give us hand-me-down clothes."
Harris' story fits well into George W. Bush's message of "compassionate conservatism," and Republicans think he can help them reach out to minority voters across the country.
Harris' mother was an unwed teen-ager when he was born. She shunned welfare and worked two jobs in their hometown of Charlottesville.
At 11, Harris began delivering newspapers to help out. His academics earned him two scholarships to Hampton University.
"Up till then, I didn't know what a Republican was. Everyone I knew was a Democrat. I thought Republicans had horns and a pointed tail," he said.
His antipathy toward taxes and his insistence that welfare recipients should have to work caught the attention of a professor who gave him books about the Republican Party.
The lessons stuck.
Harris was first elected in 1997, and he won a second term last year as the GOP won its first Virginia House majority.
Harris is helping guide the U.S. Senate campaign of former Gov. George Allen, traveling the state helping raise the GOP's profile among black voters.
"Paul is an inspiration to everybody in this party, not just black people," said Tucker Watkins, the party chairman for the district. "When you listen to his message, it just strikes a chord."