By Scott Jennings
This article first appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of the Courier-Journal.
“What a beautiful building you have here, Governor Dennison,” he said, smiling after reading a telegram. The tall Kentuckian had just been informed the Electoral College elected him President of the United States.
Abraham Lincoln was visiting the Ohio State House in Columbus on February 13, 1861, when he learned the good news. He was in the office of his friend, Governor William Dennison, who he later appointed Postmaster General. There’s still a desk in that office which Lincoln used during his visit, and Lincoln’s bust now looks over the shoulders of Ohio governors who occupy the space. A few minutes after getting the note, Lincoln walked onto the state house floor and addressed the legislators (the chair that sits on the rostrum is called The Lincoln Chair), simultaneously projecting the relief of an election ending while no doubt feeling the crushing weight of his coming task.
I learned this history visiting the Ohio capitol on January 5 for the election of Cliff Rosenberger as Speaker of the Ohio House. Rosenberger, 33, is one of the youngest state legislative leaders in the nation. I first met him as a hard working intern-turned-staffer in the White House Office of Political Affairs, where he and I served together in the second term of President George W. Bush. Cliff is part of a new generation of GOP leaders who embody Lincoln’s character, principles, and values. He is exactly the kind of person you want running a state house.
After his federal service, Rosenberger, a Korean-American, went home to Ohio and, shocked by a massive plant closure in his community that cost thousands of jobs—including his own mother’s—ran for state representative. Just a few years later, he’s presiding over the Ohio House from Lincoln’s Chair.
“In the traditional sense, I am a conservative, but my goal as speaker is to do what is best for the state of Ohio,” Rosenberger told the Columbus Dispatch. He was channeling his inner-Lincoln, who told Ohio legislators in his famous address: “We entertain different views upon political questions, but nobody is suffering anything.”
Cliff is among a new crop of young, dynamic, and diverse GOP leaders who shatter the conventional wisdom that the GOP is made up of cranky old white guys.
He’s joined in the Ohio House by a 23-year old law student named Niraj Antani, a former intern of mine from Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Antani, an Indian-American, is the youngest member of the Ohio state legislature and was named to Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 list the other day.
“I am in public service because my generation demands representation. We need leaders who are not afraid to take on the tough issues of the day, to lead,” Antani tells me.
He also channels Lincoln, particular in their shared desire for a bold and inclusive Republican Party. Lincoln’s words, these from his Cooper Union Address in 1860, hover over Antani, who seeks to bring millennials to the GOP: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
These two immigrants’ sons are joined in elective office by another in Kentucky. Dr. Ralph Alvarado, elected to the state Senate in November, is the first Hispanic-American in Kentucky’s upper chamber.
“Once you get into office, the way I see it is you put the D and the R aside, and ultimately it’s a team that everyone’s put together…like any business you sit down and start looking toward what you have in common, and you start achieving those goals,” the 44-year old Alvarado told CN2’s Pure Politics.
Alvarado’s greatest political strength? Perseverance. He ran for office four times before finally knocking off Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer (I helped his failed state Senate bid in 2010). Lincoln, of course, lost five elections before winning the presidency.
In 2006, after losing a race for state representative, Alvarado’s home was vandalized with a racial slur. Eight years later he’s making policy in Frankfort, where it is already clear that he’s one of the smartest people in the room.
People sometimes ask me what makes a good candidate, or if they should take the plunge and run for office. I always say the same thing: you don’t win 100% of the races you don’t enter. The trick, of course, is to banish the fear of failure from your mind. It is a condition that afflicts most of us at one time or another – the fear that someone will laugh at us if we fail. It is, after all, easier to dream than to try. That fear sometimes keeps the people you want in politics out of it.
Cliff, Niraj, and Ralph fear nothing except living in a world without problem solvers committed to their communities. Their electoral appeal is not gimmicky, based on half-baked policy ideas or clever quippery. What these young leaders care about most is finding solutions. Projecting that attitude is the secret sauce for a Republican to win the White House in 2016.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.