It must have been fate that led Congressman Jon Fox to invite a curious young busboy to join him and his staffers for dinner one evening five years ago. It’s a move that Kris Hart, the National Finance Director of the College Republican National Committee (CRNC), will always be thankful for as it jumpstarted his entry into American politics.
“I look back now and realize I was actually kind of rude to interrupt his dinner like that,” said Hart of the chance meeting while working at Phil’s Tavern in Ambler, Pennsylvania with his mentor and friend at age 14. “He would have had every right to shoo me away or even complain.”
But he didn’t. Instead, the now former congressman from Pennsylvania’s 13th district handed Hart his business card and invited him to work for him.
Hart, now a sophomore, eagerly accepted the offer and threw himself into Fox’s reelection campaign, following the congressman around the district and quickly gaining popularity as “Fox’s boy” by members of the campaign. When the 1998 Election Day came and Fox lost the bid, Hart remembers being devastated. Standing on the floor during the concession speech, he broke down and burst into tears.
“I thought he was a king,” Hart said. “He was like a god to me. I didn’t think there was any way he was going to lose.”
When Fox stepped off the podium to console Hart, photographers flashed their cameras, capturing the pair in a photograph that graced the cover of the major papers in the Philadelphia suburbs.
“I was so angry,” he recalls. “All my friends laughed at me for crying.”
He notes that he learned a valuable lesson from the incident.
“My mother came up to me afterwards and said, ‘you can’t break down, Kris. You always have to act like it’s OK,'” Hart said.
These days, Hart sits at a table in a crowded Capitol Hill lunch spot. To an outside observer, he stands out from the midday power suit crowd – a college student in a wrinkled T-shirt, casually reclining in his chair. Few would realize that he is entering his fifth year in politics.
Hart, who was appointed to his position at the CRNC by National Chairman Scott Stewart in June of 2002, is the youngest person ever to hold the office.
The CRNC is the nationwide coordinating organization for the Republican youth movement. With state federations in all 50 states and D.C. and local chapters at more than 1,000 campuses across the country, the committee reports a budget of more than $1.5 million.
Hart is responsible for raising every dollar the committee spends. The duty does not seem to have jaded Hart, who says he tries not to think of it in those terms.
“I owe it all to the people in my life who’ve really taken an interest (in me), especially Fox,” he said.
Hart and Fox retained their relationship, which began when Hart met Fox in the final year of his last term. The congressman served as Hart’s mentor, encouraging him to apply to the Congressional Page Program, which allows high school juniors to spend a year working in at the Capitol. He worked in the cloakroom, answering members’ personal telephone calls while they were on the House floor.
“The pages took calls from the members’ spouses and sometimes even the president,” he said. “Sometimes a page would run out and say ‘the president’s on the phone!’ and three of us would run in and take turn saying ‘hold on please’ just to hear him respond.”
His more difficult responsibility was waking the members when they took naps on the long row of leather coaches in the cloakroom.
“It was the worst job, because they would always be cranky,” Hart said.
“I would wake them up and say, ‘Mr. Majority Leader, you have five minutes until your next vote,’ and he would snap and say ‘wake me up in two.’ And if any member ever missed a meeting because you forgot to wake them up, you would die.”
Hart is quick to note that while his parents have always supported his decisions, his political leanings are a source of much conflict between him and his family.
“I rarely talk politics with my parents,” he said. “I’ve learned that it’s a volatile subject, but sometimes I need the balance. They don’t let me get away with things easily.”
Coming from a very liberal Democratic family, Hart’s conservative views make him stand out as the “rebel.” Though it is not easy, Hart is firm in his beliefs.
“I don’t like the idea that young people are assumed to be liberal,” he said. “As individuals we should chart our own course and form our own opinions.”
His own views arose from a strict period of self-education. At the age of 14, he had already been interested in public service, but was a little fuzzy on the details of how government is run.
“In eighth grade, I went up to my teacher and told her that I wanted to be a United States senator,” he said. “I asked her how I could put in an application and how the president picked those he hired.”
He explains his parents divorced when he was young and this led him to switch schools several times.
“I went through six schools in two years,” he said. “So I sometimes missed entire subjects.”
This is why he interrupted Congressman Fox’s dinner that night.
“I wanted answers and I figured he could give them to me,” he said matter-of-factly.
While they sat talking, Fox asked Hart what his party affiliation was. He answered Democrat, “since that’s what my parents were.” Fox told Hart he needed to figure it out for himself and over the course of several months gave him a variety of reading materials.
“He made sure I got a good selection,” he said. “There were several history books about the founders and policy books by both conservatives and liberals.”
In the end, Hart chose the conservative side.
“I strongly believe in the ideas of self-reliance and faith in the individual,” he said, adding he doesn’t always buy the party line.
“I believe in the fundamentals, but that doesn’t stop me from questioning what I’m doing every day,” he said. “I think that’s what makes me a good citizen, though. I refuse to take anything at face value.”
When the page program ended, Hart was offered a paid position on Wyoming Senator Michael Enzi’s staff, making him the youngest full-time employee in the Senate at the time at age 17.
“I skipped the first part of senior year and then went back and graduated,” he explains. “My friends make fun of me because I never really went to school – they just gave me the diploma.”
Knowing that he wanted to return to Washington, Hart applied to several schools in the area but chose GW.
“I’m really happy with the way things worked out,” he said. “GW lets me do what I want and I don’t think other schools would.”
When he returned to D.C. Hart spoke with George Gunning, a close friend from the Fox campaign and National Treasurer of the CRNC. Gunning got him a job assisting then-Finance Director Cade Joiner with his fundraising duties. Hart impressed his bosses with his abilities and when Joiner resigned in May of 2002, party leaders unanimously chose Hart to assume the role.
In his office at the CRNC, Hart manages the demands of his position with a mix of professionalism and youthful vigor. He sings along to a local rock station while crunching numbers. On his desk, a blue plastic Slinky sits next to a brimming Rolodex and behind him, an eight-foot bookshelf holds biographies of the founding fathers, the previous year’s tax filings and a homemade children’s book he wrote in grammar school.
Hart transformed the finance department in the past five months, dramatically increasing the direct mail program from 3,000 to more than 20,000 pieces a week.
When asked if he’s learned any hard lessons, Hart admits that he has seen a lot he had been shielded from before he was in charge.
“It’s not always a nice game,” he said. Hart explains CRNC fundraising, like many other political organizations, relies primarily on direct mail to constituents, most of whom are senior citizens. He said that many of them feel it is their duty to contribute, whether or not they have the means to do so.
“It breaks my heart every time I get a phone call from an old lady apologizing that she can’t send anything until her social security check comes,” he said. “I tell them it’s OK and to keep the money for themselves.”
Events like this have motivated Hart to shift the focus of the fundraising program from direct mail to high-dollar corporation donors. He developed and established the Corporate Finance Program, which has attracted attention from corporations such as Northwest Airlines and Coors Brewing Co. The program grants corporations the opportunity to have their products marketed by national field representatives in return for stipends of $5,000 to $100,000.
Hart, a business economics and public policy major, did not take any courses last semester in order to devote all his time to the CRNC. This didn’t stop him from being active on campus, where he holds leadership positions as president of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity and as a Student Association senator. Hart is taking a full course load this semester.
“I’m probably not going to graduate until 2010 at this rate,” he jokes.
When asked what he wants to do when that day finally comes, he shrugs much like any other college sophomore and says, “I really don’t know.”
“I’d love to run a business or be a CFO of a huge corporation,” Hart said. Flashing a knowing smile, he adds, “I’ve got some time.”