If you stood against him, the late state Sen. Chris Harris could be a snarling bulldog of a cantankerous Texas lawyer and real estate investor.
Or if he was on your side — as he was for Arlington and Tarrant County for 28 years — he was a tough guard dog heroically protecting local interests in Austin.
Harris’ death Saturday at 67 brings back memories of a time when lawmakers went to Austin to represent their hometowns and address Texas’ needs, not to promote a political movement or disband government.
Harris was as conservative and pro-life as any Republican, and his hide was only toughened by years of political attacks. Yet he also staunchly supported helping children and seniors in need of healthcare, earning him bipartisan praise but making him a Tea Party target.
Born in southern California to theater actor and director parents, Harris learned showmanship at an early age from house guests such as actor Lon Chaney Jr. and future star Shelley Winters, an occasional babysitter.
When his family moved to Arlington and his father, Jack, became a lawyer and rancher, Harris played split end for the Arlington High School Colts. He went on to Texas Christian University and Baylor Law School.
Elected in the 1984 Republican landslide that accompanied President Reagan’s second term, Harris quickly developed a reputation as a tough lawyer on the House or Senate floor and a tenacious advocate for his bills.
According to past Star-Telegram stories, at one point Harris had passed 53 percent of all the bills he sponsored during his career, double the average.
He was best known for his skill at cross-examination.
Then-Lt. Gov. Rick Perry described “a sense of fear to approach or come before Senator Harris … It’s a work of art to sit and watch.”
He also was known for his impatience with political gamesmanship and grandstanding.
“I do not demagogue,” he once told the Star-Telegram: “If I take the mike, it is serious.”
In 1985, as a rookie lawmaker, he helped bring a change to Texas school buses that may have saved countless children’s lives: the swing-out stop signs, reminding drivers not to zoom past.
In 2001, when Perry was at Bush’s presidential inauguration, Harris’ Senate rank gave him an unusual legal role as Texas’ “governor for a day.” He presided over the legal paperwork of an execution, and he later called for reforming the public defender system.
For Arlington, he wrote the bill that enabled the city to build what is now Globe Life Park, and he worked tirelessly for funding to help the University of Texas at Arlington grow from a low-profile suburban college into the system’s second-largest campus.
Harris wasn’t the most popular lawmaker in Austin, nor did he ever care to be. He cared about getting the job done for Arlington. He did so seriously and well.