Update on the Don Harris and David Barbour Election October 7, 2009

Update on the Don Harris and David Barbour Election

***Update***: If you’d like to donate to Mr. Barbour to help him recoup the cost of the campaign, information is here. There is no PayPal link just yet.

Yesterday, I posted about Don Harris, a member of the Albuquerque City Council in New Mexico, who was being challenged in the local election by a man named David Barbour.

Harris had gone after Barbour for having ties to atheist organizations and donating money for a science scholarship.

There are some updates to that story.

Most importantly — and not unexpectedly — Harris looks like he’s going to win the election in a landslide.

However, in the process, a lot of you wrote to both candidates expressing your thoughts on Harris’ lowbrow tactics.

Here are excerpts of some of the emails sent to Harris:

I was appalled and disappointed to see that instead of relying on your record of accomplishments benefiting your city, you stooped to mail a sleazy, ad-hominem rag full of distortions and lies about your opponent, David Barbour. This is not worthy of you as a City Councilor or as a representative of the people in any capacity.

I do not appreciate you acting as if atheism or California is something bad. I honorably served my country in the Navy and was stationed in San Diego. I came from California to Texas after utilizing the GI Bill. I was not an atheist until college got me away from my tunnel vision that I had while growing up in a very small Illinois town where I almost never went to church. Atheists can be good people too.

In addition to revealing your own religiously based prejudice against what amounts to upwards of 20 million of your fellow Americans, you have also given the impression that you believe a significant portion of the population of Albuquerque shares your contempt for those with views different from their own.

To all these people, Harris sent a similar response. Something along the lines of:

Dear [sender],

I was intending to expose his radical politics, and, in retrospect, how I did it was a mistake.

I apologize.


Don Harris

Harris doesn’t explain why Barbour’s politics are “radical” nor does he acknowledge what he is “apologizing” for… probably because he doesn’t get why we’re all upset. That’s disappointing.

If he’d like to issue a real apology, I’d be glad to post it.

As for Barbour, many of you reached out to him as well. It sounded like he appreciated the support. Reader Vas received this response from him in regards to what Harris said about him (with permission to reprint):

I’m a Unitarian. Its my understanding that Mr. Harris is a fundamentalist Christian, and it appears that to him, anyone outside his particular sect is a Godless radical. I mentioned that I was a board member at my church as a way to indicate that I had some experience in governance. Mr. Harris’ response in email was quoted in a blog as:

“Mr. Barbour, in both the League of Women Voter’s questionnaire and in the Albuquerque Journal questionnaire commented that he was on the Board of a “church,” obviously attempting to make himself look more mainstream than he is on such things.”

When I was living in California, I was on the board of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists for approximately 2 years. We have a part time minister there so the congregation is partly lay led. The “sermon” I gave there was on the rise of religious humanism in the UU faith which took place in the 30s and 40s. I gave it a provocative title, “The Importance of Being Atheist.”

Mr Harris may actually believe that my beliefs disqualify me from being a city councilor, but I rather suspect that it is a cynical attempt to gain votes.

David Barbour

Barbour is right with that last comment and, unfortunately, it’s too late to rectify the situation by voting Harris out of office.

But it’s not too late to bring more attention to this sad new low in politics and make sure we atheists are prepared to respond in the future. Just as politicians would be rightfully maligned for criticizing an opponent for being a “Jew” or “Hindu,” they should be punished for using “atheist” in the same vein. We need to be leading the charge in that.

Thanks to everyone who wrote letters. Hopefully, we can catch the problem earlier next time and have a chance to make a larger difference.

"The way republican politics are going these days, that means the winner is worse than ..."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."
"It would have been more convincing if he used then rather than than."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • cypressgreen

    I got the same lame response from Mr Harris myself. Of course, I was a little rude…I told him I wouldn’t vote him in as dog catcher.

    All the best to you, Mr Barbour, if you are reading this…

  • muggle

    You’ve got a point there.

    Not only maligned, your comment about calling someone a Jew made me think about how a veiled anti-Semetic remark cost D’Amato to lose the election to Schumer. I remember being for Schumer and discouraged by the polls. (D’Amato was well ahead in them.) I woke up to the news of this remark and cheered. I knew as soon as the idiot opened his mouth, he had cost himself the election. What was he thinking? With the Jewish population we have in NY?

    Would that we could see the day it’d mean the same thing for someone like Harris. Even better, would that we could see the day religion is left out of it all together.

  • I say we pull a tea bagger move and bus in a bunch of atheists from all over Texas for Harris’s swearing-in ceremony. The back-pedaling would be worthy of a Road Runner cartoon.

  • Vas

    Alright I’m still in touch with both these guys. Mr. Barbour has asked if I might mention something on his behalf, I’ll let him speak for himself…

    You might mention in the blog that I’m self funded, and I could use some donations to defray my costs for the election.


    I am posting this as a courtesy to Mr. Barbour as he has been so agreeable in our correspondence and agreed to allow our email exchange to be aired publicly. Please do not consider this as me endorsing Mr. Barbour as I don’t really know much about him, I neither support nor oppose Mr. Barbour my only interest in him is that he was the subject of the bigoted leaflet sent out by Mr. Harris. It sounds to me like he could use some cake, so if you are so inclined pop out the old checkbook and help a brother out…or not, whatever floats your boat. But here is an idea, someone mentioned that perhaps a visit to Mr. Harris’ swearing in ceremony by a contingent of offended atheists might be in order and could provide an opportunity for Mr. Harris to make a public apology. Perhaps Mr. Barbour could be of assistance in this matter,( I have not broached the subject with him) if we replenish his exhausted funds he may be able to support this endeavor and assist in logistical support. This is something that could really happen and not just idle chatter. What say we Hold Mr. Harris accountable for his actions? I know Albuquerque is an outpost but surely some of us are close enough to get there and there must be atheists, (not to mention offended UU folks) in Albuquerque who are justifiably offended. So any thought on this… do tell.

  • Siamang

    Barbour sounds like a great guy.

    Has he got a paypal link?

    Also, he sounds too thoughtful a person for politics.

    I don’t care if he’s an atheist or not. The fact was the word atheist was used to tar him, and that use tars us.

  • Vas

    Siamang Try following this


    Yeah David seems like a nice enough guy to me, but then again I’ve never met him. However it does seems beside the point, I agree with your last statement.

  • Siamang

    Sent this message:

    Dear Councilor Harris,

    I read your flier attacking a political opponent of yours for being an “atheist” because he belongs to a Unitarian Universalist Church. I feel this kind of discourse, where politicians attack opponents for their religious beliefs is a new low in politics. Would you have done the same if he were a Jew, instead of a Unitarian?

    Please understand that in doing so, you aren’t merely attacking your opponent, who for other reasons may not be the best person for the job. By your attack, you attack others as well. There’s a lot of ‘collateral damage’ that a number of your constituents and fellow citizens suffer, which I know was not meant by you.

    Also, I personally am an atheist, the head of a household, a father, and a taxpaying, law-abiding American citizen. I resent that you seem to think it’s an insult to call someone an atheist, or that it’s a valid reason why someone like me shouldn’t hold public office. In my place, I would not attack a Christian as being unfit to hold office merely because his beliefs about God differ from mine.

    I may not understand what it means to be a politician. And I get it that you feel you need to win because you feel you have the best ideas for your city. But remember that some day a doctor saving your life, or the soldiers or firefighters or police officers you support, or any number of other very good, very vital Americans are atheists too.

    I think that this action reflects poorly on Christians. I think your actions have harmed them in reputation more than atheists.

    I read that you won your election. Please seek to serve all the citizens of Albuquerque, and please seek to better the tone of civic conversation by your own improved example.


  • David D.G.

    Siamang, that’s about as perfect a letter as I can imagine being written for these circumstances. It’s completely respectful and civil, yet it pointedly and clearly explains both why this sort of tactic is ethically wrong and why it’s (at least potentially) a bad idea for tactical reasons — the latter being a matter for strong consideration by any politician, whatever his personal opinions may be.

    If you don’t mind, I may borrow heavily from that letter for future letters to politicians on this and related topics.

    ~David D.G.

  • Siamang

    Thanks, David!

  • Vas

    Today’s email to Mr. Harris.
    Mr. Harris,

    I hope you have had a chance to visit the friendly atheist website and read a bit. Please realize that not everyone in any group is civil and polite, just as you have made ill-informed public statements so to do some in the atheist community, I’m sorry if you found some content and comments offensive but the simple fact is you have angered many people with your bigoted leaflet. Try reflecting on your own religious teachings on the subject of forgiveness and loving your neighbor as yourself and let’s not continue down a road of further divisions. Also keep in mind that any vitriol directed towards you is completely independent of your actions, which is to say, just because others are nasty and rude this does not give you lenience to be nasty and rude yourself, your misdeeds are not affected or excused by the misdeeds of others.

    I understand that your election was yesterday and as such I imagine you were quite busy celebrating your victory. I appreciate your taking time from this important day to write me personally. As the dust settles and the confetti is swept up it is now time to get back to business, and I believe you have some unfinished business with the atheist community to attend to. Your leaflet continues to be a subject of much discussion and many are awaiting your public response whatever that may be. We do not yet understand why you think your leaflet was a mistake or what you are apologizing for. A few questions come to mind for example what the genesis of this leaflet was, was it your idea or someone else’s idea that you indorsed? When and why did you realize it was a mistake? Do you continue to hold the opinion that atheists are somehow to be held up as examples of bad people or radicals? By perpetuating false stereotypes you actually contribute to a climate of bigotry towards your fellow humans, you pour fuel on the fires of hatred. Please follow this link to help you understand exactly what we are talking about, it’s not from a radical website it’s from about.com a mainstream website and explains just how dire our situation in America is. http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistbigotryprejudice/a/AntiAtheism.htm . Many of us, (myself included) have suffered personal loss, loss of jobs, eviction from housing, harassment, many have literally been forced to move from the towns in which they live, our children have been made to suffer, been kick off sports teams, suffered physical assaults, outright suspended from schools or harassed until they had to withdraw for no other reason than the fact we are atheists. . Imagine that had happened to you or your children because you were Christians, ( I don’t know if you are Christian but if you are not just substitute your personal religious beliefs and you get the point). These are but a few of the indignities atheists suffer each and every day in America. Many feel compelled to hide their lack of faith for justly founded fear of very real and often violent persecution. Imagine how you would feel towards those who publically advocated against you, those who stoked the fire of hatred against you and your family based on nothing more than your religious beliefs. Would you just let it go? Would you simply hide your faith? Would you inform your children that they should hide their faith for fear of public ridicule? Or would you instead press the issue with the offender? Do you desire to be among our oppressors? Do you desire to sow the seeds of discontent? You already have done this, if you ignore this issue these seeds you sowed by your own hand may someday grow and bear fruit. If you were to find that an unstable person decided to take violent action against your political opponent based on the false information conceived and distributed by you would you feel at all personally responsible, (personally responsible not legally responsible)? Please Mr. Harris make a public statement and defuse this potential time bomb you have rolled into the town square.

    Thank you,


    Keep the pressure up, force his hand. If he ignores this issue he is actively working to cause all atheists harm. Keep the emails flowing into his inbox. if he is not responsive maybe we can think about taking out an ad, an open letter, in the local paper. I’m not ready to let his slide.

  • Richard Wade

    That is an excellent and gracious letter. I had a strong reaction to one small part of it, and I don’t know if it is cynicism on my part, or a realistic skepticism based on the evidence we have. Maybe you or someone else can help me sort out my reaction to the last half of the last sentence here, emphasis mine:

    By your attack, you attack others as well. There’s a lot of ‘collateral damage’ that a number of your constituents and fellow citizens suffer, which I know was not meant by you.

    My initial reaction was to think that you’re giving him too much credit, that it is not a matter of Harris not realizing that he would be collaterally insulting and hurting the public image of non-believers. I don’t think that he “didn’t mean it,” I think that he

    The only evidence we have to determine Harris’ attitude is the despicable mailer, and his vague and non-committal “apology,” saying only that it was a “mistake.” Why it was a mistake, he does not say. An ethical mistake or just a political one?

    Since he got so large a majority of the vote, I will not be holding my breath while waiting for any detailed statement of contrition.

    As a skeptic, I try not to slip into cynicism, because that is a prejudicial viewpoint that can cause me to not view evidence with an open mind. Sometimes I need my friends to point it out when I get too bitter or pessimistic.

    So, am I being cynical about Harris and so many other politicians who try such tactics, or am I reasonably skeptical about his having good character because of the evidence that we have on hand so far?

  • Ideally, our representatives should hold to a higher ethical standard than the average person. Unfortunately, it seems all to frequent that representatives fall below average ethically (Harris being the latest example). The fact that Harris won in a landslide means that he put that pamphlet out for nothing more than spite (and hate). I wouldn’t be surprised if some in his party try to groom him eventually for higher office.

  • Siamang

    I don’t think it really got to the “I don’t care” stage. Perhaps if he thought about it, and realized it would have caused offense, he might have decided not to care. But I really think it was him making the charge about his opponent, and it was isolated to his opponent.

    Without any further understanding of who Harris is, I don’t assume he was trying to do anything but beat his opponent. Now, it may have been that he was doing some lumping of lots of liberals together as his enemy, but that’s not my complaint. My complaint wasn’t that he used Barbour’s political opinions against him, and in that attack “liberals” get lumped in… I think that’s just normal political discourse.

    But what Harris needs to hopefully learn from this is that while that tactic is totally normal when we’re talking about political views, it’s not the same when applied to beliefs about religion, where unrelated and unparticipating people are lumped in as collateral damage.

    But I really don’t think Harris was aware of that. And I’m willing to give him the benefit that he was merely trying to win an election and the reaction is unanticipated.

  • I sent him an e-mail and got the canned response everyone else did.

  • Gareth

    Hey everyone. I just wanted to let everyone know of what seems like a degree of success. Today Mr Harris emailed in reply to the email I sent to him. The reply goes…

    Thank you for taking to time to write to me.

    I appreciate your very thoughtful comments.

    I will not bring up Atheism in any future endeavor, as I have learned a great deal from this experience.

    Best regards.

    Don Harris

    I must say I am very heartened that Mr Harris has said that he has learnt a great deal from our emails to him. Hopefully we can enlighten many more people who, in my opinion through a lack of understanding, see atheism as something it is not and something by definition it can’t be.

    Great work everyone!!

  • Gareth — Fantastic that you got a response. I’ll post something soon 🙂

error: Content is protected !!