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Their Politics Is Local

While many young people disdain the political process,
some recent HLS alumni seek elective office to help
their communities

John Cranley

John Cranley '99 canvasses voters in Ohio during his run for Congress in 2000.

Four months after John Cranley '99 filled a vacant seat on the Cincinnati City Council, local police shot an unarmed black man in the heart. The city erupted in three days of race riots--rock-throwing, smashed windows, fires, tear gas, rubber bullets. Cranley was 26, a fresh-faced city council member, and chairman of the council's finance committee.

"Talk about baptism by fire," Cranley said. "This is my hometown, and we were coming apart at the seams."

While most people his age are either working in the private sector or still fumbling with life after school, Cranley and several other recent Harvard Law graduates have found their niche in politics. With only 12 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 25 expressing a high interest in running for office, these alumni challenge the notion that young people are cynical, lazy, and uninterested in public service. They have eschewed prestigious law firms, forgone six-figure salaries, and returned to their hometowns hoping to make a difference from the inside out.

Cranley's path to politics began at 17. He was in the Dominican Republic volunteering at an orphanage when a 5-year-old girl--so malnourished she could neither walk, talk, nor respond in any way--arrived with her older brother. The night before, their mother had abandoned them at the side of the road. For two days straight, Cranley held the little girl. He made faces at her and talked to her, hoping for a reaction, or even a cry. But she never responded. "It was like talking to the woods," he said.

After being away from the orphanage for several weeks to complete community service activities elsewhere in the Dominican Republic, Cranley returned. The little girl was crawling on the floor, smiling, and laughing. Cranley was flabbergasted.

"It restored my faith that change is possible," he said. "At that time, I was debating all sorts of career choices. After that experience, I resolved that I've got to do something that will result in a better society."

Cranley returned to Cincinnati after graduating from HLS, eager to get involved in a local campaign. He got his wish and then some. When no one surfaced to challenge Republican Congressman Steve Chabot in 2000, the Democrats tapped Cranley, one of the youngest people to run for Congress that year.

So young, in fact, that he made the perfect subject for an MTV Choose or Lose documentary. While Cranley did not have much name recognition in his district, the TV cameras trailing him helped lend a sense of seriousness and importance to his campaign. He could walk into a church festival of 1,000 people, and even if most of the attendees had no idea who he was, the TV cameras made them take notice.

He ultimately lost his bid for Congress, garnering 44 percent of the vote. Now he sits on the Cincinnati City Council during one of the city's most tumultuous periods.

"While it's not necessarily common for young people to run for office, our generation is so committed to activism and service that, over time, there will be an interest in politics," he said. "I genuinely believe in democracy, and I feel like it's a place where I can make a difference and try to rearrange the power structure."

But, for these alumni, it's not an interest in rearranging the power structure on a grand scale--at least not yet. They are motivated foremost by the desire to make a community they know well a better place to live.

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