First Baptist’s Mark Harris to step aside as he considers another bid for Congress

Rev. Mark Harris speaks to his supporters during a rally in Matthews on April 21, 2016, during his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination in the 9th Congressional district.
Rev. Mark Harris speaks to his supporters during a rally in Matthews on April 21, 2016, during his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination in the 9th Congressional district. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The Rev. Mark Harris has decided to resign as senior pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church as he weighs another run for Congress.

On Sunday, Harris told the congregation he’s led for 12 years that he’d be leaving the church “in the near future … as I continue to look at undertaking a campaign” for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

That seat is held by fellow Republican Robert Pittenger, who beat Harris in the 2016 GOP primary by just 133 votes.

In a Sunday night phone interview with the Observer, Harris said that he had planned to tell the church about his resignation at a later date, after the details of a transition had been worked out with church leaders. But he said he went ahead Sunday because of a fundraising email Pittenger sent to supporters last week quoting unnamed sources that said Harris would resign from the church and challenge him again.

Harris said Pittenger never called him to inquire about whether he was running. But, Harris said, “I did not want to risk people at the church hearing things before they heard it from me.”

Pittenger, in an earlier interview, said he remains confident in his prospects for re-election. The 9th Congressional District is made up of southeastern Mecklenburg, most of Cumberland and Bladen, and all of Union, Anson, Richmond, Scotland and Robeson counties.

“We have a strong presence and broad support in the 9th Congressional District,” he told McClatchy last month.

Harris said he and church leaders would bring a transition plan – including how long Harris will stay – before the congregation on July 2.

Harris said he hasn’t decided for sure yet whether to try again to unseat Pittenger, a three-term incumbent who serves on the House Financial Services Committee. But, he said, “I believe that I bring gifts and abilities to the table that would benefit the people of the 9th district. And we did come very close last time, so I have heard from a lot of people.”

Speaking by phone from Phoenix, where he is attending the national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, Harris said he also “continues to see the brokenness in Washington D.C. I continue to have a nagging burden for my country.”

Harris also ran an unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate in 2014, finishing third in the Republican primary. In 2012, he was a leader in the campaign to pass Amendment One, which reaffirmed North Carolina’s then-ban on same-sex marriage. Amendment One’s effectiveness lasted just two years — same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina in October 2014.

At least three Democrats are also hoping to unseat Pittenger in 2018, and they say his district will be competitive.

Dan McCready, an Iraq War veteran and Charlotte entrepreneur, announced his candidacy last month.

Christian Cano, a former hotel consultant from Charlotte, is seeking a rematch against Pittenger, who carried his district last year with 58.2 percent of the vote to Cano’s 41.8 percent.

Maria Collins Warren, 48, a Robeson County resident who teaches law at UNC Pembroke and UNC Wilmington and is a former assistant district attorney in Wilmington, entered the race in January.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has Pittenger on its target list, pointing to his vote for the Republican-sponsored American Health Care Act in the House and some controversial statements he’s made.