Think presidential campaigns start early?

They’ve got nothing on Morristown politics. Councilwoman Michelle Dupree Harris has tossed her hat in the ring for mayor… in 2017.

Michelle Dupree Harris.

Michelle Dupree Harris. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I’m going to run,” Harris told Morristown Green over the weekend, at the annual George Gramby Dayfestivities. “It’s always been a dream of mine.”

If elected, she would become the first female, and the first African American, to serve as Morristown’s mayor.

Her presumed Democratic primary opponent, Mayor Tim Dougherty, called such announcements “a little premature,” but wished his former running mate well.

“With two-and-a-half years left in my term, it seems a little premature. But God bless her,” Dougherty said.

“Everyone has a right to run, and if that’s what she wants to do, she absolutely should. That’s the Democratic process. I will continue to work hard for the taxpayers of Morristown. At this point, I have every intent of running in two-and-a-half years,” Dougherty said.

Morristown Council President Michelle Dupree Harris and Mayor Tim Dougherty at the annual interfaith breakfast. Sharon Sheridan photo

Then-Morristown Council President Michelle Dupree Harris and Mayor Tim Dougherty at annual interfaith breakfast in 2012. Sharon Sheridan photo

Harris, 53, is serving her fifth term on the council, which makes her its longest-serving member.

She said her campaign will emphasize her experience, rather than any specific criticisms of Mayor Doughertya former councilman and zoning board chairman now serving his second term as mayor.

“I’m not going to say anything negative,” said Harris, who ran on Dougherty’s ticket in 2013.

“I grew up here. I’ve been on the council longest. There are still a lot of changes to be made, things to be improved upon.”

FORMIDABLE TASK

Any challengers will face a formidable task in unseating Dougherty, a seasoned campaigner who leads a town generally perceived as progressive and on the rise.

On his watch, the redevelopment of Speedwell Avenue has moved from drawing boards to construction, and other high-profile projects are advancing in a downtown increasingly viewed as a desirable place to live, work and play.

Municipal taxes have not risen for five years. And the administration recently won an epic tax battle with Morristown Medical Center that may set a precedent for the state.

Morristown Council President Michelle Dupree Harris and Council Vice President Rebecca Feldman watch Mayor Tim Dougherty sign agreement that paves the way for the redevelopment of Speedwell Avenue. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Then-Morristown Council President Michelle Dupree Harris and Council Vice President Rebecca Feldman watch Mayor Tim Dougherty sign January 2012 agreement paving the way for the redevelopment of Speedwell Avenue. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Officially, the post of mayor is a part-time gig, paying $26,000 a year.

A kindergarten teacher at the Alfred Vail School with 27 years in the classroom, Harris said she plans to retire at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Harris said she considered running for mayor in the past, but it would have posed a conflict because her husband worked for the town.  They are divorced now, so that’s no longer an issue, she said.

The councilwoman is a 1979 graduate of Morristown High School. She said she has been observing the town’s inner operations since her days working for the recreation department as a teenager.

Harris, who is active with the Morristown alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a service organization, said she plans to spend the next few months assembling a campaign team and raising funds.

Raising a special-needs child has honed her sense of humility, said Harris, a mother of three grown children.

“I’m a very humble person when it comes to recognizing my responsibilities, as a councilwoman, as a teacher, and as a human being,” she said.

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