Right fu­ture: Group gives young con­ser­va­tives venue to net­work

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Robert Stacy McCain and Joanna Sug­den

The el­e­gantly dec­o­rated room buzzes with young Wash­ing­to­ni­ans in busi­ness at­tire, chat­ting ami­ably be­neath a glit­ter­ing chan­de­lier as they munch on tor­tilla chips and drink beer from bot­tles and wine from plas­tic cups.

On New Hamp­shire Av­enue, a short walk from Dupont Cir­cle, a Wed­nes­day evening in April finds an as­sort­ment of twenty- and thir­tysome­things so­cial­iz­ing on the sec­ond floor of the Fund for Amer­i­can Stud­ies.

It may look like a lot of other Wash­ing­ton par­ties, but this gath­er­ing of young po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives, gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, think-tank staffers and writ­ers — os­ten­si­bly on hand for a dis­cus­sion of mone­tary pol­icy — is ac­tu­ally more than meets the eye, says David Kirby.

This is the fu­ture of Amer­ica, and Mr. Kirby’s in charge of it.

The 28-year-old is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­ica’s Fu­ture Foun­da­tion, a group ded­i­cated to de­vel­op­ing “the next gen­er­a­tion of con­ser­va­tive and lib­er­tar­ian lead­ers,” he says.

AFF events like this one, billed as “It’s All About the Ben­jamins, Baby: The Great In­fla­tion De­bate,” are a ma­jor part of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s work, com­bin­ing pol­icy dis­cus­sions with meet-and-min­gle op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“It’s the only game in town for any­thing like this,” says Sean Hig­gins, a long­time AFF mem­ber and Wash­ing­ton correspondent for In­vestors Busi­ness Daily. “This is the only gen­uine open de­bate in this sort of in­for­mal set­ting.”

Nearby are two economists from the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics, Sadie Blan­chard, 26, and Diana Gehlhaus, 24.

“I have al­ways been in­ter­ested in pol­icy is­sues,” says Miss Blan­chard, who be­gan at­tend­ing AFF events two years ago. “I don’t work in pol­icy, so it’s good to hear about top­ics I wouldn’t hear about and to be around peo­ple who are re­ally smart.”

This is the first AFF event for Miss Gehlhaus.

“Th­ese kinds of de­bates are good and get dif­fer­ent ideas out there,” she says. “It’s im­por­tant to have th­ese kinds of events be­cause th­ese is­sues af­fect peo­ple, whether they like it or not.”

AFF events are “about link­ing peo­ple up, in­tro­duc­ing in­ter­est­ing peo­ple to other in­ter­est­ing peo­ple,” says Robert Schrum, 24, a writer for Key­bridge Com­mu­ni­ca­tions who serves as AFF’s deputy di­rec­tor of mem­ber­ship.

The round-ta­ble dis­cus­sions on the sec­ond Wed­nes­day of each month are more than merely a so­cial scene, says J.P. Freire, who ed­its the “Brain­swash” blog at the foun­da­tion’s Web site (Amer­i­c­as­Fu­ture.org).

“It’s not just net­work­ing, be­cause that’s shal­low,” says Mr. Freire, who has writ­ten for such mag­a­zines as Rea­son and the Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor. “It’s ac­tual men­tor­ship. [. . . ] There’s noth­ing else like this.”

In ad­di­tion to its Web site, AFF also pub­lishes mem­bers’ writ­ing in a quar­terly jour­nal, Dou­ble­Think.

“We have mem­bers who want to be jour­nal­ists, and I help them de­velop their re­port­ing skills,” Mr. Freire says.

This unique Wash­ing­ton in­sti­tu­tion — bring­ing to­gether a young “pla­toon of right-wingers,” as Mr. Freire calls his fel­low AF­Fers — be­gan 12 years ago in an apart­ment on 21st Street North­west with pasta and a few friends.

“There were seven of us,” said Mary Sid­dall, who co-founded the or­ga­ni­za­tion in 1995 along with hus­band Chris Sid­dall, Casey and Suzanne Carter, Bob and Lisa Cald­well, and Adam Kauf­man.

“I hand­made two kinds of ravi­oli and bought ex­tra plates and chairs so that we could all sit around the din­ner ta­ble,” re­calls Mrs. Sid­dall, now a mother of three and a mem­ber of the AFF board of direc­tors.

“All of us sort of grew up dur­ing [the Ron­ald Rea­gan pres­i­dency] and were peo­ple who were do­ers,” she says. “The hype in the me­dia about our gen­er­a­tion — that was when the term ‘Gen­er­a­tion X’ came out — was ex­tremely neg­a­tive. It was ‘lazy know-noth­ings who can’t get off the couch.’ ”

In the job mar­ket of the early 1990s, Mrs. Sid­dall says, she and her fel­low twen­tysome­thing Rea­gan­ites had found them­selves “not just start­ing out at the bot­tom, but at the bot­tom-bot­tom. And there was no way to re­ally move up the job lad­der once we got in.”

And while MTV’s “Rock the Vote” was show­er­ing fame on young lib­er­als, she says, young con­ser­va­tives felt ig­nored by their el­ders.

Lib­eral “young peo­ple were mov­ing up, whereas for us, only the lead­ers were talk­ing to the lead­ers,” Mrs. Sid­dall says. “We saw a need to fix this dis­con­nect and get ev­ery­one talk­ing. So we sat down, and from the very first mo­ment, we re­al­ized [. . . ] we had to build a net­work. It was larger than just pol­i­tics.”

A dozen years later, AFF still op­er­ates on a tight bud­get. There is no head­quar­ters — Mr. Kirby, the only full-time em­ployee, has an of­fice at the Com­pet­i­tive En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, a free-mar­ket think tank — and re­lies heav­ily on the vol­un­teer ac­tivism of its mem­bers. Yet the foun- da­tion has gained a rep­u­ta­tion as a key link for up­wardly mo­bile young op­er­a­tives on the right, by pro­vid­ing “face time” with more se­nior lead­er­ship.

“My first AFF event was a din­ner with [Cato In­sti­tute founder and pres­i­dent] Ed Crane,” says Mr. Kirby, a grad­u­ate of Har­vard Univer­sity’s Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment. “I’d been work­ing at Cato for a year and hadn’t met him.”

AFF has the sup­port of vet­eran lead­ers who “fought in the trenches” of the move­ment that brought freemar­ket ideas into the main­stream, Mr. Kirby says.

“The older peo­ple in the move­ment do un­der­stand [. . . ] that we are five or seven years away from a key change in lead­er­ship,” he says, ex­plain­ing that lead­er­ship is the key to AFF’s ac­tiv­i­ties.

“One thing I have no­ticed about lead­ers is that they are mag­netic. When you bring a leader into a room, peo­ple want to talk to them. Our strat­egy has al­ways been to bring to­gether the smartest, hippest peo­ple to meet each other. It’s al­ways been that type of or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

For ex­am­ple, last week’s May round ta­ble, a dis­cus­sion of the ethics of or­gan do­na­tion mod­er­ated by Christie Raniszewski Her­rera of the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Ex­change Coun­cil, fea­tured Dr. Sally Sa­tel of the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and Kerry How­ley, a Rea­son staff writer.

Ca­reer-build­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties are a ma­jor ben­e­fit of join­ing AFF, con­nect­ing mem­bers to “tal­ent scouts,” Mr. Kirby says.

“Ev­ery new mem­ber has a cup of cof­fee with one of them and says, ‘Oh, you’re work­ing on the Hill? That’s in­ter­est­ing, you should meet X or Y.’ [. . . ] They get jobs, they are opened up to an­other part of the move­ment they never knew about. The way we drive it is we try to bring young lead­ers in and find out what they are try­ing to ac­com­plish and how we can help them.”

In ad­di­tion to ideas and ca­reer help, AFF also of­fers young con­ser­va­tives an­other valu­able re­source, some­thing of­ten miss­ing at their Wash­ing­ton day jobs: fun.

“We’ve got the youngest, health­i­est soft­ball team a think tank has ever seen,” Mr. Kirby boasts.

Af­ter the April pol­icy dis­cus­sion of in­fla­tion — John Tamny, ed­i­tor of RealClearMar­kets and Dan Mitchell of the Cato In­sti­tute ex­chang­ing views, with AFF board mem­ber Sean Rush­ton mod­er­at­ing — the crowd lingers sev­eral min­utes be­fore ad­journ­ing to a Dupont Cir­cle nightspot.

“We go to a restau­rant or bar in the area to con­tinue the dis­cus­sion. Peo­ple like to un­wind,” says Mr. Schrum, the deputy mem­ber­ship di­rec­tor. “It’s all about ideas. We never have any sort of an­i­mos­ity. We come to a con­clu­sion or walk away with some more things to think about.”

Bert V. Goulait / The Wash­ing­ton Times

David Kirby is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­ica’s Fu­ture Foun­da­tion, which was founded to bring to­gether young con­ser­va­tives.

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