As a black, conservative activist in southeastern Wisconsin, I am often invited to speak to various groups on how we expand our base, grow the conservative movement, and reach out to communities that do not vote for conservatives in large numbers. I recently spoke about this very topic at a Dane County GOP Pints and Politics. As I told the activists there, the solution is understanding the first rule of politics: showing up. I learned this rule as I got my start in conservative activism.
However, prior to learning the lesson of showing up, I was not someone who was born into conservativism. In fact, I didn’t even personally know a conservative. I graduated from a Milwaukee Public School in 2005, grew up in a liberal city, and had no concept of what a Republican or a conservative was. But you know what? I also had no concept of what a Democrat was, other than that I was supposed to be one because I am young and black – and that is just the way the chips fall.
My first interest in politics arose out of then-President Obama’s reelection efforts, beginning in 2010-2011 after the Tea Party came to power. I was a young student in college with a family, and politics began to interest me. I started watching MSNBC and the late progressive, Ed Schultz, and his nightly cable news show. He, like me at the time, was a champion for President Obama. I even once volunteered for Milwaukee liberal State Senator Lena Taylor. While I was not a member of the Democratic Party, I was certainly a supporter and voted for Democrats. For a brief time, I was also a small donor and helped register voters for President Obama.
My opening to the Republican Party began as I took interest in who the possible opponents were to President Obama, which led me to watch the Republican debates. Those debates included Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and a few other notable Republicans. I watched all of them, and as the debates went on, I took interest in the Republican candidate who went after Republicanism. That candidate was Congressman Ron Paul. He opened my eyes to true conservatism – aggressively cutting spending, cutting and even removing government agencies and departments, an America-first foreign policy, and holding Republicans to account for their failure to do these things when they controlled government – policies similar to those supported by the Freedom Caucus and conservative leaders like Congressman Jim Jordan today.
Ron Paul provided a stark, clear contrast between conservatism and liberalism. After that, I saw few differences between the other Republicans on stage to the Democrat I was supporting. At that point, I jumped on the Paul train and never looked back, leaving my liberal past behind me.
My conversion was happening during the same time of the infamous recall election of then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The recall began in November 2011, at the very time I was going through my own political conversion. The only thing that prevented me from signing the recall petition was timing. That is the only reason you will never see my name on the recall petition.
This brings me to why I’m writing this article. The only way for the conservative movement to grow is for people like my former self to hear and be exposed to a conservative message. That requires showing up. But it also requires accepting converts into the conservative movement and supporting converts to conservatism who run for office on a conservative agenda.
I have been watching the Republican Primary in the 3rd Congressional District – a seat Democratic Congressman Ron Kind currently holds. There is a young conservative candidate running, Jessi Ebben, who shares a similar story to mine. Jessi Ebben is a convert to conservatism, and her campaign has been endorsed by rock-solid conservatives in the Freedom Caucus, Congressman Jim Jordan, Debbie Lesko, and others. These are the same conservatives who not only fight against big-government liberalism but big-government Republicanism. The Freedom Caucus has been the greatest supporters of President Trump and has stood by him even when some in the Republican party has been slow to defend the President. I have met many others like Ebben and me. I have learned that converts to conservatism are some of the greatest supporters and defenders of the President and our movement.
Ebben’s story slightly differs from mine. Her conversion to conservatism happened after the recall election, and she signed the recall petition. Like just about everyone, in college, I was just beginning to think critically. And I’m sure the same is true of Ebben. It is foolish and self-sabotaging for Republicans or conservatives to punish people for converting to conservatism, and for signing a recall petition as a young college student – especially when they can eloquently describe why they are a conservative today.
More important, outright rejecting converts to conservatism is a path to building a permanent minority. The only way for the conservative movement to grow and win elections is to accept – and actually seek out converts like me and Jessi. I generally don’t get involved in elections out of my area, and I am not getting involved in this race, other than to say we need to build a young, energetic, conservative movement and not concede the future to progressivism.
I am all for primaries being vigorously contested on the basis of ideas, but the outright rejection and badmouthing of people for views they held before converting to conservatism will only lead us down a path of losing future elections to the likes of Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and the far left.
Chris Lawrence is a Program Director at No Better Friend Corp., a conservative public policy group in Wisconsin that seeks to grow the conservative movement. He is the First Vice-Chair of the Milwaukee Republican Party and has previously worked at Americans For Prosperity and in the Wisconsin State Senate. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.