Blue America Endorsed P.G. Sittenfeld For Senate-- Get To Know Who He Is
Sittenfeld, at 30, is less than half his age and is far more energetic and much more in touch with where the Democratic base has gone since Strickland, always a conservative Democrat, was actively engaged. A few days ago, Andrew Romano penned a piece on Sittenfeld emphasizing the fact that the two of them knew each other in college and that Romano, who has done profiles on dozens of politicians, was eager to get behind the curtain of handlers and press releases to see what makes a politician tick. "Observing these figures at close range," he wrote, "hasn’t really helped. In fact, they tend to seem even more alien-- more exaggerated, calculated and opaque-- in the flesh. After a while, I gave up." Until he realized his old college friend is running for the Senate in Ohio.
Sittenfeld is new to politics; the sum total of his electoral experience consists of serving on the Cincinnati City Council for the last four years. He is only 30 years old. If he wins next November, he would just barely clear the Senate’s Constitutional age requirement. The next youngest senator would be nearly a decade his senior. In fact, he would be one of the youngest senators in U.S. history, as well as the first member of his generation, the so-called millennial generation, elected to such high office.So far this cycle Blue America has only endorsed 4 progressives running for Senate, 3 already well-known figures-- Russ Feingold (WI), Donna Edwards (MD) and Alan Grayson (FL)-- and Sittenfeld. If you'd like to help Sittenfeld replace Portman in the Senate-- or help any of our other 3 candidates-- here's the ActBlue page for that. Help Rob make history-- and turn America around.
...To me, Sittenfeld seemed like the same kid I’d met back when he was a freshman and I was senior. The age gap was too big for us to become close friends, but he immediately struck me as gregarious, energetic, enthusiastic and practical. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. A bit messy, perhaps. But mostly a model millennial.
Then Sittenfeld’s iPhone rang again. He looked down. It was Dhani Jones, the former NFL linebacker-turned-Travel Channel host-turned-bow tie entrepreneur who had recently signed on as Sittenfeld’s first celebrity supporter. The candidate cleared his throat four times. A preemptive smile spread across his face.
“DHAAAAAANI,” he said in his clubbiest baritone. “What’s going on, man?”
Jones replied. Sittenfeld listened. He was still smiling.
“Hahahahaha!” laughed Sittenfeld. “I drive a made-in-Ohio Chevy Cruze. My man-of-the-people mobile…”
Jones said something else. Sittenfeld laughed again. Then his laughter tapered off.
“So, I got three quick things for you, and you can say yes or no to them, but it’s my job to ask,” Sittenfeld said. He spoke smoothly, confidently, without a hint of hesitation or apology. “OK, ready? No. 1, we want to do a contest. I don’t know if your preference is like, you know, Dhani will design a bow tie for you or, like, give you a tutorial, but are you game to do one or the other?” Pause. “OK, that would be great. Two, I’m having an event in New York two weeks from today. I don’t know if you’ll be in New York then, or if there are people you could forward the invite to…” Pause. “All right, yeah. That’d be awesome. And then the final thing. This is the almost unsavory part of politics, but man, we’ve gotten off to a good start. You put the wind in my sails. You’ve got the ambassadorship all lined up. Want to see if you might be willing to double down on your early contribution and do one more.” Pause. “Ex-cel-lent. Thank you, Dhani. You’ve been wonderful. And I think people are going to love this contest.”
Whoa, I thought.That’s how the grown-ups do it.
Ohio political consultant Jerry Austin recently said that Sittenfeld displays the kind of “political talent he and other longtime Ohio Democrats [haven’t] seen in close to 40 years.” I was beginning to understand why.
...Sittenfeld and I both went to Princeton. I graduated in 2004. He graduated in 2007. On paper, we must have looked very similar. We both came from half-Jewish, half-Catholic families... The first time I encountered the name P.G. Sittenfeld-- a moment you do not forget-- was when I read in the campus newspaper that he’d been elected freshman class president. The date was Oct. 7, 2003. That means Sittenfeld had been away from home for less than a month when he launched his campaign. It takes a special kind of 17-year-old to jump right in like that.
“The real reason I’m doing this,” Sittenfeld told the paper, “is because I really like meeting new people and I have a lot of energy.”
Sittenfeld could have been grating-- I can see that I’m making him sound like a male Tracy Flick-- but he wasn’t. Everyone liked him. Yes, he was ambitious; he seemed as if he’d been networking from birth. But his ambition never came off as self-aggrandizing; he wasn’t angling for power, or other people’s esteem. It was simply a byproduct of his personality: the self-assurance, the directness, the off-the-charts extroversion.
“As much as P.G. was trying really, really hard,” a mutual friend explains, “he wasn’t trying to be anything other than himself.” He couldn’t help it. He really liked meeting new people. He had a lot of energy. He never stopped moving.
In late 2000, right when I arrived at Princeton, the conservative writer David Brooks came to campus “to see what the young people who are going to be running our country in a few decades are like.” The result of his field study was an essay in the April 2001 issue of the Atlantic that portrayed my classmates-- and by extension, my generation-- as “extraordinarily bright, morally earnest, and incredibly industrious” meritocrats who had been helicopter-parented, play-dated, and overscheduled to the point where nothing was worth doing if it wasn’t “a means for self-improvement, résumé-building, and enrichment.” According to Brooks and the professors he quoted, my peers and I had “no time to read newspapers, follow national politics, or get involved in crusades.” We were “disconcertingly comfortable with authority.” We were “eager to please, eager to jump through whatever hoops the faculty puts in front of [us], eager to conform.” We were not “disputatious.” We felt “no compelling need to rebel-- not even a hint of one.” We were, in short, “deferential.”
“They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it,” Brooks concluded. “And they are streamlined for ascent.”
Brooks titled his piece “The Organization Kid.” It was, like all pop sociology, a cartoon. But it had some truth to it, too, and for the remainder of my time at Princeton, and Sittenfeld’s time there as well, “The Organization Kid” framed the debate over who we were and weren’t-- and who we would rather be... After Princeton, Sittenfeld attended Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship. Then he went to work for Google. Self-improvement? Check. Résumé-building? Check. Streamlined for ascent.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the top: Sittenfeld decided he wanted to go home instead. Writing microscopic entertainment blurbs at Time felt like “a waste.” Google wasn’t right, either. So in 2009 he returned to Cincinnati to work as the assistant director of the Community Learning Center Institute (CLCI), a nonprofit that helps transform local schools into round-the-clock community centers. His mother, Betsy, had been his teacher and librarian at Cincinnati’s elite Seven Hills School; his father, Paul, a wealth-management consultant, was always joining a new board or embarking on some new philanthropic project. CLCI felt like a natural fit.
“My family wasn’t especially political, but they were very civic-minded,” Sittenfeld told me. “There was very little traditional relaxation or downtime at home. My mom doesn’t shop. My dad doesn’t golf. They’re too busy doing things for other people.”
But unlike his parents and his fellow Organization Kids, Sittenfeld was drawn to politics. By the time he arrived in Cincinnati, he was already thinking about running for office someday. As a freshman, he’d spent his fall break campaigning in New Hampshire for John Edwards. That summer he watched Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech “on a 12-inch television screen” and “literally stood up” as Obama spoke.
“I really responded to that kind of inspirational call to action,” Sittenfeld recalled. “I thought, ‘I’d like to be able to do that myself when the moment is right.’”
That moment came sooner than Sittenfeld expected. One day, he was testifying before City Council on behalf of CLCI when he noticed that a couple of council members were paying more attention to their iPhones than to what he was saying. He decided-- on the spot-- that he could do better. “I care deeply about my convictions,” he told himself. “I like interacting with people. I want to make an impact. This seems like a good use of my skill set.”
It was. During his city council campaign later that year, Sittenfeld knocked on thousands of doors. He discovered that he loved the visceral, improvisational challenge of trying to persuade people to vote for him. “It’s like Forrest Gump and the box of chocolates,” he told me. “You never know what you’re gonna get.” In Cincinnati, City Council candidates are rarely elected on their first try; Sittenfeld was the second-highest vote-getter in the race. He was only 27 at the time. In 2013, he won reelection with 10,000 more votes than any other candidate-- a record margin.
It’s hard to overstate how unusual Sittenfeld’s choice of career is for someone his age. Over the last dozen years, the Organization Kids’ early apathy toward politics has curdled into outright antipathy. The story of the 2000s was, in many ways, a story of political dysfunction and failure: the misbegotten invasion of Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, the devastating financial collapse of 2008, the unprecedented gridlock on Capitol Hill. Deep in debt, weary of war and anxious about their own job prospects, millennials have become Cynic Kids who are “deeply resistant to idealism,” according to one of their own-- who “don’t like the system” and are “dismissive of their ability to actually achieve the desired modifications.”
For their new book, Running From Office, political scientists Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox surveyed more than 4,000 high school and college students across the country. Their conclusion? “Black or white, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, Northeastern or Southern, the next generation is turned off to politics.”
Only 1 in 9 millennials has ever given serious thought to elective office, Lawless and Fox report. Only 7 percent plan to run for office later in life, roughly the same percentage of Americans who claim they’ve seen an alien spaceship. “The mean-spirited, broken system that has come to characterize American politics turns young people off to the idea of running for office,” the authors write. “It discourages them from aspiring, one day, to be elected leaders. It prevents them from even thinking about a career in politics.”
Smart young people still want to change the world; they just think they have a better chance of changing it from, say, Silicon Valley than from Washington, D.C. By insisting on working within the political system-- and by insisting on staying in the Ohio Senate race even after his own party leaders, including Sen. Sherrod Brown and former President Bill Clinton, have sided with Strickland-- Sittenfeld isn’t being deferential. He isn’t aiming to please. He isn’t following the crowd.
“Politics often gets a bad rap with my peers,” he told me. “But it’s still a place where leaders can galvanize action that might not otherwise have occurred. Millennials look at the political realm and they don’t see themselves represented. They just see old ways of problem-solving that are out of touch and out of date. I’m hoping my own candidacy-- and my role in the Senate-- can change that.”
The Organization Kid may have been a conformist. The Organization Candidate, it turns out, has to be a bit of a rebel.
...[F]ew voters outside of Cincinnati know who he is yet. According to the polls, Sittenfeld is trailing Portman by 25 percentage points in large part because 85 percent of Ohioans haven’t heard enough about him to form an opinion. (Only 23 percent say the same thing about Strickland.) To win, Sittenfeld needs to boost his name recognition in the rest of the state, which is why he decided to drive three hours on a Wednesday morning to meet with the editorial board of the Toledo Blade.
“If they ask, ‘What do you know about Toledo?’” said Dale Butland, the veteran Ohio Democratic strategist who signed on to Sittenfeld’s campaign in April and who zipped up from Columbus in his red BMW for the day. “You can say the Mud Hens’ Triple-A park is one of the coolest parks in all of baseball-- because it is!”
Sittenfeld took one last look at his talking points-- a lined piece of 8.5-by-11-inch paper on which he’d scrawled “Disagreements with Ted” and “Why is Rob Wrong?” above quadrants labeled “Immigration,” “Iran,” “Middle East,” and “Economy”-- then folded the sheet into eighths and slipped it into his pocket. He unrolled his shirtsleeves, tightened his tie, shimmied into his favorite navy blue suit jacket and buzzed his way into the Blade.
Editor David Kushma ushered Sittenfeld past the sleepy 1970s-era newsroom and opened the door to his office. A subscription receipt from 1837 hung on the wall.
“So,” Kushma said, settling back in his chair. “How’s it going?”
“Things are going well,” Sittenfeld said. “There is a big appetite out there for new leaders to step up with some fresh ideas and perspectives. The main thing for me, which I believe I’m uniquely positioned to do, is to put the focus on the future instead of having this race be a stale argument about the past.”
“Mmm hmm,” Kushma muttered. He sounded a little skeptical. “You seem to be running against your party. How are you dealing with that?”
“If I can tell my story and spread my message across Ohio, I think we win this race-- both primary and general,” Sittenfeld replied. “I’m not running because I’m young. But for the United States Senate not to have a single person from the largest generation in American history, which also happens to be the most technologically savvy generation in American history-- something is clearly missing. There are different ways of engaging with the world that come with being a part of a different generation.”
For the next hour, Sittenfeld told Kushma and his colleagues what exactly he meant by that. Some of it didn’t sound all that different from the usual Democratic spiel. “The future is transitioning to renewable energy.” “Trade is a good thing, but bad trade”-- like the Trans-Pacific Partnership-- “is a bad thing.” “I support common-sense gun-safety measures.”
But a lot of it did. Sittenfeld explained how, at CLCI, he’d helped implement a community-schools model that Mayor Bill di Blasio was now importing to New York City. He declared that America should legalize marijuana (even though he’d never smoked it himself). He insisted that it was “totally obscene and unacceptable” that the federal government makes $135 billion in profit a year on student loans, and touted his proposal to lower federal student loan rates to 2 or 3 percent, allowing the average graduate to save around $12,000 over the arc of their repayment period.
“It’s about taking the gains we’re seeing in the economy,” he said, “and investing them in things that meaningfully support the middle class.”
He added family leave, paid sick days, a federal minimum wage hike and a larger earned-income tax credit to that list. And he argued that his “fluency with technology” could help Washington “harness the innovation economy,” citing three examples from his time in Cincinnati: expanding wireless Internet access to the poorest parts of the city, leading the charge to pass an open-data policy at City Hall and championing direct municipal investment in local startup accelerators and incubators.
How Sittenfeld communicated was different as well. The elements were familiar to me. The agile intelligence. (He answered in complete paragraphs.) The former journalist’s facility with narrative. (His rationale for running was always front and center.) And the contagious optimism-- the sheer delight in the possibilities of politics-- that only a young person who feels like he’s just found his calling can convey. Still, about halfway through, I forgot Sittenfeld was some kid I went to college with, and I could tell that Kushma & Co. had changed their minds about him, too. He wasn’t the longest of long shots anymore-- someone the savviest politicos were supposed to dismiss. He was a real candidate.
When Sittenfeld stood up to leave, one of Kushma’s colleagues pulled him aside. “It’s frustrating,” he sniffed. “The Democrats need to find fresh faces. They can’t keep serving up leftover gruel and saying, ‘You’re going to like it!’ That turns people off.”
...I don’t think you beat Rob Portman by saying, ‘Who’s got a longer résumé in politics?’
“You knock him off with a fresh face and a dynamic new candidate,” Sittenfeld continued. “I’ll be honest. I want to stand next to Rob Portman and have him tell me I’m inexperienced. And I want to say, ‘You’re right, I am inexperienced when it comes to being U.S. trade representative when the trade deficit with China explodes. I am inexperienced when it comes to being George W. Bush’s budget architect before the economy takes a nosedive. I am inexperienced when it comes to telling women what they should do with their bodies. To voting against the minimum wage. And on and on and on. Rob Portman can’t win that argument. We need to make this about the future.”