When Hasan Harnett joined the track team at his new high school, teammates knew him as “the transfer.” At least until he won the 1,500-meter race at the state finals.
Then they called him state champ.
“No one expected me to win,” he recalls. “In those days I only knew one speed, and that was all out.”
Last week, Harnett, 39, won another race few expected him to win when he upset a Gastonia lawyer to become chairman of North Carolina’s Republican Party. He’s the first African-American to head the party and, as a self-described constitutional conservative, the first chairman championed by grass-roots and tea party Republicans.
“This was a great victory for the liberty movement and the grass roots,” said Jack Brosch, a Charlotte businessman who ran unsuccessfully for chair in 2013.
Harnett beat Craig Collins, who was backed by Gov. Pat McCrory, North Carolina’s two U.S. senators, a congressman, the lieutenant governor and leaders of the state House and Senate as well as the sitting chairman.
“I would characterize this as very much a David-Goliath contest,” said Vince Coakley of Charlotte, who hired Harnett to manage his 2014 congressional campaign.
A Massachusetts native, Harnett is an entrepreneur, martial arts enthusiast and motivational speaker. A Republican for just five years, he remains relatively unknown to many in his party as well as the state.
From biochemistry to business
Harnett, the oldest of three, was 7 when his parents divorced. “It was during those times I learned leadership,” he said. “I had heavy responsibility from Day One.”
When his mother took the family to Rhode Island in the early 1990s, he ran for Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, where he won the state 1,500-meter championship and placed in three other events, according to the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.
At Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College, he majored in biochemistry and dreamed of a career in medicine. He co-wrote an article on chemical compounds for a scientific journal called The Journal of Liquid Chromatography.
But when he graduated in 1998, he decided to take a different direction. Medicine was out. Business was in. He took an accelerated business program at Dartmouth and then went to work for a venture capital firm. For the next few years, he worked in finance and real estate and other ventures, including his own startup that offered online music for college students.
He moved to Harrisburg, just outside Charlotte, in 2005 with his wife, Ayana, for a new start and a job as a financial analyst at U.S. Bank.
Harnett, who said he was apolitical at the time, registered as a Democrat.
“If you said Democrat, Republican or independent, I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about,” he said, adding that he checked Democrat because that’s what most African-Americans were.
Moving into politics
Harnett gravitated to politics after meeting the late Tim Johnson, a GOP activist who founded the Frederick Douglass Foundation, which bills itself as “the largest Christ-Centered, Multi-Ethnic and Republican ministry in America.”
“Harnett was always a conservative, but he kind of got woken up to the fact that the Republican Party (was) closest to his values by Tim Johnson,” said Daniel Rufty, the GOP’s 12th District chairman.
Harnett was a Democrat when he voted in the 2008 presidential primary. He said he bypassed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and wrote in Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican.
He switched parties in 2010, according to election records. That’s when he helped the campaign of Christopher Hailey, a black Republican running for Mecklenburg sheriff.
“Whenever I needed help, he was there,” recalled Hailey.
After that campaign, Harnett began working on the state party’s efforts to recruit more minorities. At the same time, he was learning more about politics. In 2011, he was chosen as a fellow in the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership, which has groomed state political leaders for nearly 30 years.
In 2014, Harnett managed Coakley’s campaign. But in the heavily Democratic district, Coakley got 25 percent of the vote in losing to Democrat Alma Adams of Greensboro.
In his run for chairman, Harnett worked hard. One delegate said Harnett talked to him once by phone and left two voice mail messages. “He’s the hardest working man I’ve ever met,” said Rufty, who managed his campaign.
Harnett rode the support of grass-roots conservatives frustrated with the prospect of being led by somebody chosen by party’s establishment. That included many tea party activists.
Harnett said his goal is to build the party at the grass-roots level and get it ready for 2016.
He sees an analogy in his success after moving to a new high school.
“I went from being a transfer into the state to being the chairman,” he said. “So there’s a lot of parallels there.”
From: Boston and Brockton, Mass.; Pawtuckett, R.I.
Family: Wife, Ayana; three children.
Occupation: Success Mastery Leadership, a professional training business. Also does motivational speaking.
Martial arts: Chinese Kenpo, Tai Chi, and Goju Ryu.
Track: Rhode Island state 1,500-meter record in high school. Captained indoor track and cross-country teams in 1993-94. Fastest mile: 4:18.
Published: In college, an article in a scientific journal called “Thin Layer Chromatography Analysis Of Dialkyl Phosphate Degradation Products Of Organophosphate Pesticides On C-18 Chemically Bonded Plates.”