Joe Frank Harris, a Democrat, served as governor of Georgia from 1983 to 1991. Much as his predecessor, George Busbee, had done, Harris brought a conservative, businesslike approach to the governor’s office. Harris was a low-key campaigner and governor who served the state during an improving economy in the 1980s. By the end of his term in 1991 Harris had helped secure education reform, the Georgia Dome, the 1996 Olympics, and a more diversified state economy.
Early Political Career
Born on February 16, 1936, Joe Frank Harris is the second son of Frances and Franklin Harris. Harris’s family lived near the small town of Atco, near Cartersville in Bartow County. In 1958 Harris graduated from the University of Georgia and returned home to work in his family’s concrete business. In 1964 a group of local leaders persuaded him to run for the Georgia House of Representatives. Although initially reluctant to involve himself in politics, Harris agreed to run and won office, ultimately serving nine consecutive terms. As a member of the General Assembly, Harris was a workhorse who made himself a specialist on budgetary issues. By 1974 Harris had become the second-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. When the chair of the committee died that year, Speaker Tom Murphy ultimately named Harris the chair. By 1982 Harris had so gained the respect of Murphy that the Speaker backed Harris in his gubernatorial bid.
In 1982 Harris ran for governor in a field of ten Democrats headlined by Congressman Bo Ginn, a well-financed and popular candidate. Most pundits viewed Harris as a dark-horse candidate at best. Partly because of Murphy’s support, Harris won the Democratic nomination and subsequently the governorship itself. As governor, Harris made his mark by being a conservative who maintained a very low profile, prompting critics to question his strength. Occasionally, Harris would propose legislation only to withdraw it if the General Assembly looked unlikely to pass it. Harris’s business experience helped him to lure new businesses to Georgia, however, continuing a trend of gubernatorial involvement in this area that dated back to the 1950s.
Harris’s most visible achievement as governor was a sweeping reform of public education. The program, known as Quality Basic Education (QBE), sought to improve funding for Georgia public schools by expanding student testing, introducing new programs for students with disabilities, and increasing teacher salaries. Although the legislature never fully funded the program, state expenditures for public education increased dramatically, and teacher salaries began to rise from dismally low levels. Although QBE was later replaced by other reforms, it represented a major financial commitment to public education that had not been seen in the previous decade.
Another notable achievement of the Harris administration was the funding of a sports arena, the Georgia Dome, which was ultimately the site of Super Bowl XXVII and a venue in the 1996 Olympics. Harris had played an instrumental role in securing Atlanta’s bid for the Olympics. The administration also undertook an ambitious program to fund four-lane major highways around the state. The expansion of the state highway system was made possible by an economic and population boom in Georgia during Harris’s tenure as governor. Although critics had often charged him with being too passive, Harris had notable successes as governor.
After retiring as governor, Harris returned to private business for a time. He published a book, Personal Reflections on a Public Life, in 1998. In 1999 Governor Roy Barnes appointed him to a seven-year term on the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, which oversees the state’s public colleges and universities. In 2001 Harris served as the vice chair of the Board of Regents, and in 2002 he was elected to a one-year term as chair of the board.
In 2008 the University of Georgia named a building, the Joe Frank Harris Commons, in his honor.