I have to make a confession. I was a Democrat. It’s true, but I didn’t inhale. The decision to leave the party set me down the road of politics. Ironically, the man who put me on the path of Republican politics is and always has been an unapologetic Democrat. Coming out as a Republican to turned out to be harder than I expected.
My childhood home was basically a chapter of the Democratic National Committee. Every election cycle was dominated by who needed the votes and the terrible things that would happen if this Democrat or another lost. Every four years, we would gather in front of the television for four straight days of indoctrination by the mother ship during the Democratic National Convention.
People who believe that adults can easily brainwash children have never raised teenagers. I started running with a bad crowd – Young Republicans – getting myself into debates about the free market, U.S. foreign policy, even admiring tax cuts. I was a fan of President Ronald Reagan, but I couldn’t really talk about that at home.
My father is the ideal Democratic voter: supporter of the status quo candidate, votes faithfully in every election, and tireless champion of the party’s nominees. To demonstrate that point, I recall vividly the 1984 Democratic Primary where former Vice President Walter Mondale was challenged by Colorado Senator Gary Hart. Mondale was the party’s man, stalwart servant of former President Jimmy Carter, it was “his turn.” My sister, like many young voters of the day, chose the more exciting Hart, who four years later would achieve a level of scandal that is all too familiar now.
In 1984, the idea of supporting anyone but Mondale was heresy in our house and my sister’s rebellion played all the way through to the Democratic Convention. As my sister and father debated which was better, I blurted out, “What difference does it make? Reagan’s going to win.” The chilling silence and stare made all too clear that I’d said those words out loud. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” my father said, and we left it at that. November came soon enough, and my amateur prognostication was overwhelmingly correct.
By 1990, I was a young college student volunteering for my first campaign for the First District of Maryland. The 1988 election had proven difficult for the incumbent Democrat, so seven Republican candidates filed for the race in 1990. I volunteered for a local state House member who seemed like a decent guy, working at a grocery store when he wasn’t representing the people in Annapolis. In those days, volunteers stuffed envelopes, licked stamps, waved signs, all the usual stuff to get your candidate elected. One night I was leaving, and the Campaign Manager stopped me because he’d noticed I wasn’t on the precinct list in my hometown.
“Oh, I’m a Democrat, so I’m probably not on the list.”
He looked at me for a second and said, “Hey, you’re a nice guy and I’m sure you’re on the team, but don’t you think you should be registered to vote in the primary? I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression.”
He pulled out a registration form and handed it to me. “It’s totally up to you, but I can’t really spend time explaining having you on the team if you’re going to stay a Democrat.”
Before he’d even finished the sentence, I’d started and almost finished filling out the form. I thought, “What did I care?” I honestly didn’t see a future in the Democratic Party and I really agreed with this candidate.
So, I handed the registration form back to the Campaign Manager and told him he could send it in and I’d be back the next day. Simple and easy, right? Not really.
It’s no exaggeration that I would have gotten less grief for bringing a boyfriend home than a Republican voter registration card.
About two weeks later, I came home from school one day and walked into my parent’s house. At the dining room table, my father sat on one end and my grandmother on the other. My dad asked me to come sit down. Seemed like one of those conversations where someone was in the hospital or dead.
“What’s going on? Is everything okay?”
My father pulled a card out and handed it to me. “You got this in the mail today.”
It was my voter registration card. “Okay. Where’s Mom? Everyone’s okay, right?”
I was waiting for a terrible shoe to drop.
“There’s a mistake on there and I thought you ought to know so you can fix it.”
I looked at the card – name, address, everything checked out. “Looks right to me.”
“Can’t be.” my father is not known for shouting, but clearly, he was not happy, “That says you’re a Republican and I know that’s not right.”
“Oh, that. I switched parties because…”
Those were my last words for about 45 minutes. My father, with an assist from my grandmother, proceeded to inform me how wrong this was, someone had talked me into it, basically any explanation they could think of that I could not possibly mean to register as a Republican, and I needed to fix it. It’s no exaggeration that I would have gotten less grief for bringing a boyfriend home than a Republican voter registration card.
We spent the better part of the next decade arguing – not debating – politics, as I graduated from college and moved to Washington, DC to work on Capitol Hill. After the Thanksgiving Dinner of 2000 while the Bush/Gore Election hung in the balance, the arguing reached its peak. My mother would ban political talk during special occasions from that point forward. Once my father became a local elected official and had to work with people from all parties, I became his son, THE Republican. And I was no longer a fool. Instead, I’d been raised to “think for myself.” Give my the old man credit, he has spin.
My father was right; I was fiercely independent. But the switch happened because after I was exposed to ideas, I challenged them, and formed my own opinions. That discovery made me understand the power of ideas and want to be a part of shaping policy. Those who don’t live in the world of politics may not see the difference between the operatives and the policy people, but there is a huge difference. While operatives know how to make campaigns run, work, and even succeed, they manage. The real power in politics was the policy, the “why” we fight for what we believe in, the leaders. Thanks to my parents, and an awkward coming out, I’d chosen to become a policy guy who worked in politics. Little did I know where that would put me in the years to come, but in the rearview mirror, it all makes sense now.