Friday, February 26, 2016

In Memory of Bob Neilson

Bob Neilson at my campaign kickoff in 2012
A great American named Bob Neilson passed away earlier this month. I will miss Bob and his loyalty, humor, bluntness, and patriotism. Bob was the most relentless man I have known.

Bob grew up in Wahkiakum County, spent his career as an Army officer, including service in the Vietnam conflict, and he and his family made Puyallup their home in 1977. He was involved in Living Word Lutheran Church, the Puget Sound Honor Flight, and a number of local political campaigns.

I first heard of Bob in an email he sent me in 2004, offering me unsolicited but much-needed life advice and concluding with, “If you're in Puyallup I would be happy to buy you a cup of coffee so long as you drink it black and without artificial sweetener.” I was away at college in Michigan then, but I got to know Bob a few years later when he was president of the 25th District Republican Club. His regular club newsletter included his commentaries on culture, politics, and education. He made it his personal ambition to elect Republicans to all three legislative seats in the 25th District, something that had not been done since before the Great Depression. 

In the summer of 2009 I was thinking of running for the legislature the following year, and I knew that I needed Bob’s support. So I joined him on his morning walk on the Foothills Trail one day and we discussed the idea. He had plenty of good advice.

In the spring of 2010, Bob decided to go door to door for Bruce Dammeier and me to drop off our flyers. Morning after morning, Bob was out on the main streets and back roads of the 25th District helping to drum up votes. He was joined by Jim Downs for much of the time. The day before the election, he wrapped up his work, writing to Bruce and me, “Did 179 homes for a total of 5135 since June 16.  Jim and I started when it was warm, worked when it was hot and finished when it is cold and wet.”

I ended up winning that election by 29 votes out of 52,000 cast. There’s no question that Bob made the difference. Without him, I wouldn’t have won my first election.

Every day that Bob went out on the campaign trail, he’d send us an after-action report detailing his exploits. “Today was a royal butt kicker,” he wrote in June 2012. “Campaigned the NE corner of 25-221 and did 96 homes for a total of 427.  Took me 2-1/2 hours because of mountainous terrain, long driveways, raging rivers … I crossed into another precinct as I walked back to my truck. Visited no more than five homes.  We all know how important five homes can be.  That is 16% of the margin Hans won by.”

In July, he wrote, “Today I started in 25-242.  It is a butt kicker.  Took me over two hours to visit 72 homes for a total of 1250.    Lots of hills and long driveways.  Feel myself getting into shape.  This is where elections at this level are won.  We are going where the saints dare not [trod].”

And Bob kept on going. I once invited Bob to attend a benefit breakfast for a local nonprofit. He wrote back that he could not attend because “I will be going door-to-door for you and Melanie.  Besides I truly dislike events like this because they attract candidates for public office.”

He encountered various interesting characters, scenes, and dogs.

"Worked 25 - 244 again today," he wrote one day. "A lot of exercise. A lot of miles. Not a lot of homes. In two hours I visited 66 homes for a total of 1859....One home had every vicious dog in the world less two. The next home had them. Was not confident the steel gate would hold. They got in a fight with each other over who would get to devour me."

Bob was a master of retail politics. "Visited with one man today who confirmed what I know about elections at this level," he wrote. "Gentleman said to me, 'If you are interested enough to come to my home I will vote for you.  I do not care what party you're from; I'll vote for you.' People want us to show interest in them.  If we bust our backsides going door-to-door then we can have a Republican sweep of the 25th Legislative District."

And a sweep is just what happened in 2014, after Bob set a new record of doorsteps reached.

"It is fun and invigorating and an honor," he once wrote to us in the middle of a campaign.

This year we won’t have Bob out on the streets and neighborhoods of the 25th District going door to door for us, but I’m sure he’s hard at work on the streets of heaven. I can imagine him up there repeating from time to time the little phrase he wrote whenever he signed off his emails: "All is well." 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Speaking the Language of America

Here's an essay I wrote for the John Jay Institute for a symposium on the future of conservatism:

Most Americans are conservative, at least in one respect. Their basic political goal is to conserve the country’s greatness. They are driven by their affection for the people, the land, the opportunities, the local communities and civic institutions, the traditions and heroes, the ideas and ideals of America. But deep as these affections are, they often lack a common language to convey them.

The language suited to this broad conservatism is rarely even to be heard among movement conservatives today. Conservatives end up in camps, each responding to one or another set of problems facing the country. Tea Party conservatives talk about the rise of big government. Social conservatives talk about the degradation of the family and culture and threats to religious liberty.

Fiscal conservatives talk about taxes and regulations that harm businesses. So it is that movement conservatives go around sounding pessimistic. They talk about limits, not about possibilities. Rarely do they express the variety, complexity, beauty, and hope of American life. Our challenge, then, is not one of policies so much as it is one of poetics—of the language we speak.

I say this as a policymaker. In three election cycles and four years in the Washington State House of Representatives, I have a learned a few lessons about how to communicate conservative principles in a reputedly liberal state. Before I was elected, I was working on a PhD in Political Science because I wanted to understand political thought and rhetoric. In becoming a grad school dropout, I have continued my studies in other ways.

I have studied politics in legislative committee hearings and caucus deliberations, campaign committee conference calls and precinct officer meetings, League of Women Voters candidate forums and party booths at the State Fair, city council and school board meetings, Kiwanis and Rotary luncheons, historical society and water utility board meetings, neighborhood picnics, church men’s groups, charity breakfasts, PTA dinners, and countless face-to-face chats with constituents at Anthem Coffee in downtown Puyallup, Washington.

Many of the people I have interacted with in the last four years are anxious for a generation of conservative statesmen and women who will stand for the things they love, not merely oppose the things they dislike. They want leaders whose conservatism is expressed in a language of affection.

Let me suggest three key words that can help movement conservatives to communicate more affectionately and, therefore, effectively with the country.

The first word is community. Shortly after my first election, I settled on a vision statement that I have since repeated to audiences of all political stripes: “We need to build up our communities, not our bureaucracies.” I have yet to hear anyone disagree with this. If anything, I have heard from a lot of young people who are eager for public leaders who celebrate the value of communities. Perhaps it’s why Paul Ryan—famous for his emphasis on civil society in the tradition of his mentors Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett—received the highest support for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination among 18-34 year olds in a recent poll by Young evangelicals, yet to identify with either political party, are deeply concerned about poverty, which is best addressed by strong communities rather than bureaucracies. If we need more of anything in America, it surely isn’t bureaucracy. We need moms and dads, grandparents, friends, volunteers, entrepreneurs, mentors, and coaches.

This leads to a second word that conservatives should include in their vocabulary: service. It is a wonderful thing that the John Jay Institute is working so effectively “to prepare principled leaders for faith-informed public service.” Recently I have had the pleasure of helping to launch a similar but smaller effort called the Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Named after former Washington State Secretary of State and Discovery Institute founder Bruce Chapman, the Center arises from a recognition that politics can be good, not merely something to be tolerated. Politics is a noble thing in a free society, where it is expected of citizens that some among us will volunteer to lead. Citizen leadership can come from small business owners and blue collar workers, teachers and journalists, doctors and lawyers. Today we need a new generation of conservative citizen leaders who are willing to prepare themselves for the big public challenges of our time and step up to serve their communities.

Of course, service is more than an activity of government. Service means volunteering in a homeless shelter, tutoring a child, or caring for the elderly. It means organizing a block watch, teaching Sunday School, cleaning up a roadside, or giving time to a local Scout troop. In these ways, service can be an alternative to government itself. As young Congressman John F. Kennedy said in 1952, “Only by doing the work ourselves, only by giving generously out of our own pockets, can we hope in the long run to maintain the authority of the people over the state, to ensure that the people remain the master, the state the servant. Every time we try to lift a problem from our own shoulders, and shift that problem to the hands of government, to the same extent we are sacrificing the liberties of the people.” A self-governing society is a caring society, a society where neighbors serve one another, especially the most vulnerable. Service must be central to our conservative message.

Finally, conservatives should remember that the word that matters most to America’s families is children. James Q. Wilson once declared the first precept of welfare reform: “Our overriding goal ought to be to save the children. Other goals—reducing the cost of welfare, discouraging illegitimacy, and preventing long-term welfare dependency—are all worthy. But they should be secondary to the goal of improving the life prospects of the next generation.” Indeed, we should advance free markets and promote limited government, we should win elections and enact reforms, and we should do all of it insofar as it furthers the pursuit of a bright future for our children. This pursuit is shared and understood by America’s families. Moms and dads care about the quality of the schools that their kids attend, the affordability of college tuition, and the safety of their neighborhoods. We must offer creative conservative policies that address issues like these and a language to express the signal importance of children in our vision of America.

Whittaker Chambers once wrote to William F. Buckley that “each generation must find its language for an eternal meaning.” We must do that today. The truths we love and the principles we Americans regard highest are unchanging. But we cannot get by on yesterday’s language. We do honor to those who have come before us in the conservative movement to adapt and to embrace the challenges of our own age.

Today we must speak an affectionate language, a language that expresses our love for the country. We need a language that celebrates community, service, and children. And of course, we need conservative spokesmen and women. The John Jay Institute deserves thanks for its work to prepare such people for the task ahead.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Give big by staying small"

A few weeks ago, hundreds of philanthropists gathered for the Exponent Philanthropy National Conference in Washington, D.C. Founded in the 1990s as the Association of Small Foundations, Exponent Philanthropy consists of “donors, trustees, and philanthropic professionals who choose to give big by staying small, working with few or no staff to make the most of their resources.”

Small philanthropy is integral to the American civic tradition. It is certainly integral to the civic tradition in my hometown of Puyallup, Washington. I serve on the board of one small foundation, an offshoot of the Kiwanis Club of Puyallup that over the years has raised an impressive number of donations and estate gifts from club members, mostly to benefit children in our town. Many of the gifts are designated scholarships for local high school graduates. Recently we approved grants for playground enhancements in the downtown park, a scholarship program for minority students in our county, a facility upgrade at the local library, and support for the food bank. 

Read more at Philanthropy Daily here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Place-based philanthropy

Most of today’s philanthropists strive to meet the needs of their hometowns, and some of the biggest names in American philanthropy include among their multiple areas of focus a program dedicated to their local community. But today there is renewed attention in philanthropic circles to the serious value of targeted local investments where the impact can be seen among neighbors.

The Aspen Institute recently hosted a convening of over fifty philanthropists to talk about giving locally. It was entitled, “Towards a Better Place: A Conversation about Promising Practice in Place Based Philanthropy.” The Aspen convening paper notes a “welcome trend towards supporting communities and places of high need.”

Read more at Philanthropy Daily here

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

100 years of community foundations

For the 100th anniversary of America’s community foundations, David C. Perry of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Terry Mazany of the Chicago Community Trust have edited a volume of essays by community foundation leaders entitled Here for Good: Community Foundations and the Challenges of the 21st Century. It covers topics like the role of community foundations in facilitating collaboration among local stakeholders, rural philanthropy, and whether, as Douglas Kridler of the Columbus Foundation writes, “we go the way of newspapers, symphony orchestras, and other signs of community vitality that were under so much financial strain at the time of the writing of this book.”

The Cleveland Foundation was the first community foundation, founded in 1914 by lawyer and banker Frederick Harris Goff. Ronald Richard, present-day president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, writes in Here for Good that Goff’s model was “a permanently enduring organization flexible enough to address the needs and seize the opportunities of any era.” Today there are 700 such foundations in America with almost $50 billion in assets. In 2011, community foundations made grants of around $4.2 billion, more than 10 percent of the country’s total foundation grant making.

Read more at Philanthropy Daily here

Friday, August 8, 2014

Invocation at the Commissioning of 2nd Lt. Ross Zeiger

Our God, we are thankful for this occasion, for this nation, for this Corps, and for this Marine, Ross Zeiger.

We are thankful for the men and women, many of them here, who have been inspirations and leaders and teachers to Ross. We are thankful for those who have gone before Ross, whose courage runs down in his blood—men like his namesake and uncle Col. Ross Greening.

We are thankful for the blessing of this free land, and we ask that You would preserve it.

This Marine is going to serve a dangerous world and we ask for Divine protection.

He is going into situations that will require character and talent, and we pray that You would give what is needed for the time.

In Your Name we pray,


Monday, June 23, 2014

Hiring civic-minded millennials

Young Americans are getting involved in their communities in new ways. They join Giving Circles, participate in crowd funding campaigns, and use social media for good. They are also getting involved in philanthropy and service through their workplaces. A new study shows that millennials value employers that encourage volunteerism and giving.

 With funding from the Case Foundation, the research group Achieve surveyed 1,514 employees of more than 300 companies who were born after 1979 to find out how millennials express their commitments to the community through their work. Entitled the “Millennial Impact Report,” the study examines how young employees get involved with corporate social responsibility initiatives or “cause work.”

Read more at Philanthropy Daily here