Right future: Group gives young conservatives venue to network
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.”
David Kirby is the executive director of the America’s Future Foundation, which was founded to bring together young conservatives.