New mayor known for strong stands
In Matthew Harper’s nearly three years on the Huntington Beach City Council, he has built a reputation as conservative, pro-business and unfraid to put in his 2 cents.
He always comes to the meetings prepared, whether he intends to speak for or against an item. On occasion, he’ll get into a little back-and-fourth with colleagues.
“He’ll irritate a lot of people, and being truthful isn’t something that is easy to swallow,” said his father, William Harper. “He tries to be tactful, but he’s got his priorities set pretty firmly.”
The new mayor has strong views on a number of issues. He has spoken quite vehemently against the plastic bag ban, which the city imposed this year, and the proposed ban on polystyrene. He’s advocated for construction of a new senior center as well as the legalization of fireworks in the city. He’s also been vocal about keeping at bay what he often refers to as “the heavy hand of government.”
On Dec. 2, dozens of people filed into Huntington Beach council chambers to celebrate Harper being named the city’s 59th mayor.
“He was interested in politics in high school, his degree was in public administration, and he always knew he was going to serve,” said William Harper, who attended the special occasion with his wife, Karen, and his son’s soon to be wife, Elizabeth Byrne.
Matthew Harper, 39, was born in Long Beach and lived briefly in Colorado but spent the majority of his life in Westminster and Huntington.
Even at a young age, politics piqued his interest. He recalled, at 8 years old, supporting calls for a bike path on Rancho Road near the Westminster-Huntington Beach city limits — an area deemed unsafe for cyclists.
“My parents and others went to the city of Westminster and they said, ‘Oh, no, that’s Huntington Beach’s responsibility,’” Harper recalled. “Then we, residents of Westminster, went to Huntington Beach, and they told us it’s Westminster’s responsibility.”
During the cities’ dispute, Harper paid attention to how his parents handled the situation, getting his first taste of politics.
After starting classes at Huntington Beach High School in 1988, Harper joined the Junior State of America youth organization, the speech and debate team and the student congress.
“In politics, nothing moves unless it’s pushed, and it takes people deciding to push,” he said. “A lot of people talk, and a lot of people complain, but at an early age I was taught, ‘Don’t just complain about it, do something about it.’ And seeing how it worked, you could see how individual citizen action changes things.”
Harper credits the time spent in Junior State for teaching him how to listen the arguements of others as well as articulate his own points of view.
“Even though I bring very strong conservative priciples to the table, I think it’s very important that you listen to people regardless of what their position is,” he said. “No elected official knows it all and you can always learn, and there are always things you haven’t thought of yet.”
Fresh out of high school in 1992, Harper began to look into what he could do to help the GOP. He revived the College Republicans at Orange Coast College and volunteered for U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and other conservative candidates.
After a year at OCC, he transferred to USC. While there, he volunteered for former Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential campaign and earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy and management.
After college, he worked various jobs, including selling houses and serving in
management at a commercial fishing supply exporter. He currently works in community relations for OC Waste & Recycling.
The opportunity to enter the political arena occurred in 1998, when Harper won a spot on the Huntington Beach Union High School District Board of Trustees, where he served for 12 years before becoming a councilman in 2010.
“I was talking to all kinds of people and telling them, ‘You should run,’” Harper said. “And then [I said], ‘If you’re not going to run, I’ll run.’ And I ended up running.”
Huntington Beach does not have an elected mayor — the position rotates annually among council members. As Harper heads into his fourth year on the council, he is making the long-awaited senior center his main priority.
“We as the council can’t say, ‘This is an option for us to do,’” he said. “I view it as, ‘We can only honor what the voters have asked.… Now’s the time to do it.”