Politics Q&A: Meet Lisa Stickan of the Young Republicans

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The Ohio activist talks swing state politics, what it means to be part of the GOP, and whether or not she's a member of the establishment.

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After graduating from John Carroll University in 1998, Lisa Stickan of Cleveland, Ohio, started law school and joined the local chapter of the Young Republicans. In subsequent years, as she followed in her father's footsteps and became a prosecutor, she rose in that organization, and is now Chair of the Young Republican National Federation, America's oldest political youth organization.

Ask her about politics and her inclination isn't to talk about ideology or policy details -- for her, politics means going door-to-door on behalf of a candidate she believes in, serving on her City Council, dropping off campaign literature, and participating in the regional roundtables and meetings that shape the future of the GOP. We talked about her involvement in politics, her assessment of what younger Republicans care about, the GOP establishment, and Ohio as a swing state.

What follows is an edited transcript.

At what age did you first identify as a Republican?

I was probably between 10 and 12. My mother got involved in the community, and instilled in me a desire to do the same. We met some great candidates and wound up dropping literature for them. And then I came to realize that, with my values and beliefs, I identified with the Republican Party. When you talk to people who are really into politics there's that love of meeting people, discussing issues -- if there's a candidate you really love, promoting them by getting literature out and knocking on doors. I always really enjoyed that sort of activity. I like to meet people.

Do you still go door to door?

I do. I love it. I ran myself for City Council, and I found that in my own campaign nothing is a substitute for knocking on doors. Part of what you would do is an introduction. Who I am, what I do professionally, and especially what I have to bring to the table when it comes to the position I seek. I have a history of working in government. I'm a former county prosecutor. When you serve in government, in that capacity -- that and my interest in politics have exposed me to just how important governmental decisions are. City Council is really the first step, it's the day to day maintenance of someone's life, it's the regular service people sometimes takes for granted that makes life easier. Is your garbage getting picked up on time? Are the roads plowed?

Those things are so important that you want to make sure regular maintenance is made. For someone like myself, starting out in the political world, I think it's a good step to really learn the fundamentals of government on the other side of things. It's one thing to be a prosecutor. It's another thing to actually run a city and help constituents. I've learned so much about the budget, different expenditures. And when I went door to door, I got a good feel for the neighborhood. The biggest issue for people on a given street. It gives you a good pulse on what's going on in the area.

What's your best experience going door to door?

Going to the door of someone I might have helped, which happened when I ran to be reelected to the city council. You get these calls, they have a complaint, you take steps to address it, and you don't really hear anything. But when you meet that person and see that you helped them, you did right by them, that's a good feeling. I haven't really had a horrible experience. I don't tend to get into a lot of arguments. You're at someone else's door, so your role isn't really to argue with them, it's to get them information. At least that's my philosophy. It's to ask them for their support. I don't think you're helping your cause if you're trying to argue ideology at someone's doorstep. It's more a matter of, "We'd love your support," and the ability to answer any questions they have.

Do you identify as a conservative as well as a Republican?

Yes.

When you started to shape your own political opinions, what made you think the Republican Party and conservatism were right for you?

Growing up and meeting candidates, it wasn't even necessarily the most conservative candidate, it was these are good people who have the right temperament or personality or beliefs, and bring some good talent to the table. That is why I got involved. It was candidate specific. I grew up in the Midwest as the daughter of a prosecutor. I'm a prosecutor. And I'm a Catholic. So there are those identifiers for me in terms of the conservative principles. But especially with the economy being what it is today there's more of a shift back to fiscal conservatism that we hear so much about in the Republican Party right now. And sitting on a city council, seeing the importance of guarding the taxpayer dollars, and how precious it is, how entrusted you are as an elected official - that affirms my belief that as an elected official and as a conservative, I do think fiscal conservatism and not spending beyond our means is one of the most important components of government right now. And that's really a strong belief I have.

What caused you to join the Young Republicans?

I first got involved in the Greater Cleveland Young Republicans when I was in law school. I met someone named Josh Mandel, our state treasurer, who is now running for US Senate. I mention him because we have members like that who got involved at a young age. The group serves many functions. As soon as you get involved at the national level you really have a nice network of peers, people around the country who you can discuss different ideas with or even just call friends. You can also get those boots on the ground, get out there, knock on doors, boost candidates, help them get elected. You can really have an impact. And learning first hand about these campaigns, how they function, what it takes to run a campaign. It comes in handy when you decide, I'm going to run for city council or judge or state representative one day.

Is part of the mission outreach to young people? Getting more young people to identify as Republicans?

Yes. A lot of our membership is young people post college who, as they establish their careers, are looking to get involved and learn more. What does it mean to be a Republican? Who are the candidates out there? Part of our job is to provide that information.

What does it mean to be a Republican?

I think generally speaking we talk about fiscal conservatism. If you're asking, what does it mean to be a Republican for these younger voters, what issue is driving them the most, I'd say that a lot of our membership is post-college, they're nervous about their future. They're having a hard time getting jobs. They're struggling, trying to establish their career path, find work, buy a home, start a family. These are obviously critical stages in one's life. Being that there's a lot of turmoil in the economy, it's created a lot of angst. There have been so many surveys about how people are delayed in making major decisions. Buying a house. Starting a family. Because they're worried, and they want to make sure. So I think to be a Republican means to worry about the future of the country, our economic future. To not incur so much debt. The debt we've been incurring over the last couple years is alarming to most of our membership. It's the kind of thing where it's easy money today, but the bill is going to come due tomorrow, and nobody wants their future saddled with these grim economic prospects.

I think that's what it means to be a Republican. It means to be fiscally conservative. It means to care about the future of this country. It means to embrace the American dream, which is to respect capitalism, respect hard work, be there to improve yourself. And not have government dictate to you what your future should be, to not be dependent on government to take care of your family, to be able to provide for yourself. Those are the kind of general concepts. But I think that sort of goes to the concerns of a lot of post-college voters.

What about social issues? The stereotype is that young voters care about them less. Has that been your impression?

It isn't that younger voters don't care about issues like marriage or abortion. I think it's a matter of what the focus should be on. A younger voter may be staunchly pro-life or favor traditional marriage, but when they're talking about politics or our future, their greater concern is the fact that they haven't been able to find a job. It's the economic uncertainty that's driving the younger voters. And to be fair, I think president Obama kind of put himself in a bit of a box with these voters. He did a fabulous job getting his message out, we all agree. He ran a strong campaign targeting younger people, embracing Twitter and Facebook, communicating in places where young people communicate. He got this message of hope and change out to younger voters who really did support him. And now that they're graduating college, these very same voters are unable to find work, so of course they're becoming disgruntled voters. They're not finding hope.  

What makes Ohio different than other places?

Ohio to me is a good snapshot of America, with a nice variation of very rural counties, very urban areas, that are a cross-section of America. That's why I enjoy being on the ground in Ohio.

It's the kind of state where you really have to work hard to get your message out. We joke about it. A lot of people in Ohio will say, "oh my God, I get so many robocalls, I get so many pieces of literature," but those same voters, if they don't hear from someone, they'll say, "Oh, can you believe that candidate didn't reach out. No one knocked on my door, no one called me." I think being a voter on the ground, we're used to these candidates really trying to get their message out to us. They know this electorate here wants or needs the information to secure their votes. There are a good number of independents, it's a swing state, and people are really asking themselves why they should give a candidate their vote.

If I were to visit Ohio and I wanted to see the diversity you're talking about, where would I go?

Cleveland is a nice cross-section. You have a lot of people who are very proud of their heritage, whether they're Italian American or Jewish American or what have you. It's like Chicago in that regard. There's a lot of great neighborhoods here, like Little Italy and Chinatown. If you were to come, I would recommend that you come to Cleveland because you'd experience all those different cultures, and it would be a good time. If you went 50 minutes away you'd be in a rural county. You'd see some Amish people. Great people there too. If you went near Ohio State you'd see a lot of young people clustered around Columbus. Northeast Ohio has pockets that we used to call the Rust Belt. A lot of manufacturing has left. Some remains. You talk to voters there and you get that perspective.

Presidential campaigns and TV pundits emphasize certain disagreements among Republicans. If we were to pay attention to Young Republicans in Ohio, what are the big disagreements?

Well, in no group does everyone agree on everything. You might get a Republican, for example, who says I'm a pro-choice Republican but I support this candidate because of his stance on fiscal issues.

You could find a Republican who is supportive of gay marriage rights.

So I think that would be a discussion.

Do Young Republicans reflect the larger disagreements in the GOP about the best presidential candidate this cycle?

Among the remaining candidates you'll find supporters of all of them. But the consensus is that they'll be satisfied even if their guy isn't the nominee. I don't think there's much division on the big issues. A lot of it is manufactured for TV. The Democrat Party had a pretty involved primary between Hilary Clinton and President Obama. But at the end of the day the base does rally around their candidate. I do feel that whoever the Republican nominee is people will support him.

There's been a lot of talk lately about a divide between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party, or the grassroots. There's never a consistent definition about who counts as a member of the establishment. But it seems like you are definitely part of the Republican establishment -- that if it means anything, it's officially joining an organization like the Young Republicans. So what do you think when you hear all this rhetoric? Do people in your organization ever say, "Hey, wait a minute, that's me you're complaining about?"

You're right, there is this question out there, "Who is the establishment?" Is it people in D.C.? The guy who has the most elected officials supporting him? Usually the answer depends entirely on the identity of the person talking about the establishment. I could be called the establishment, but then again, I'm based out of Ohio not D.C., so others would say I'm not in the establishment.

I will disclose to you that although our organization doesn't endorse, I am slated as a Mitt Romney delegate in Ohio. So I do support him in our individual capacity.  But our board has Newt Gingrich delegates, we have Rick Santorum delegates. So we have good relationships with all of these candidates. They come to our events. And we're always very respectful of all of them.

So do you think of yourself as a member of the Republican establishment?

No, I don't. (laughs) I really don't.

Not that there's anything wrong with the establishment. But honestly, being in the Midwest, I think I identify the most as a Midwest Republican, as someone from Ohio, and I think that when you think of the establishment you get this image of people just popping a banner up - you get this negative connotation, the way the press uses it. But the truth is we're not just for the party. We're activists. We will go and get boots on the ground. We'll knock on doors. We enjoy it. So if you told someone in my organization that they're part of the establishment - not that there's anything wrong with being in the "establishment" - we're activists, first and foremost.

So in your mind the establishment is people in D.C.?

Yeah, but I think the term is thrown around so much that it's confusing, almost meaningless in some ways. If I have to think this hard about what it means, it's probably being misused.

What do you think the national media gets wrong about Republicans?

There's two things that really stick out.

One is the notion that being fiscally conservative, having concerns about the economic future of this country, you have some members of the press who twist it into being insensitive, not caring about people struggling in this economy. And that isn't the argument. You know, a Republican may look at something and say we have too many people on welfare, we should work to make them self-sufficient. And that shouldn't be spun into not caring about poor people. We don't want people on the government dole. It's a good thing if people can provide for themselves.

So that's something that has always bothered me.

The other relates to our group. The idea that younger people vote like sheep for the Democrat Party. And that is absolutely not true. Did they come out for President Obama? Yes, they did. But he aimed his campaign at those voters, and he's going to have to answer to them, because he sold them a bill of goods. Just because someone is under 40 that doesn't mean they're a slam dunk vote for Democrats.

When the Republican Party is recruiting candidates what do you look for?

Someone who is prepared to do the work. If you're not willing to put yourself out there, meet voters, knock on doors, being good on paper doesn't do you a lot of good. Your number one job is to get information out there. To get out there and campaign. You want good qualifications and background too, someone well-suited to the job they're seeking.

There are more and more people who are identifying as independents. What's the case for joining a party instead?

If you align with the Republican Party, there's a huge benefit to getting directly involved. By coming to events, by hearing the candidates, by knocking on doors, being in the throes of the election, you're directly impacting the outcome through your work, which is rewarding. And you're really given a place at the table, an ability to get your voice heard, even the ability to have leadership in your party, to change it. You can dictate and shape the future. It's easy to stay on the sidelines over small disagreements, but if you want to see positive change nothing beats getting involved and effecting it yourself.

Is there really a meaningful opportunity to change things?

I believe so, yes. If you're able to get your opinion heard, get your voice heard, work hard, you'll have a seat at the table. That doesn't mean you'll always get your way. But you'll never get your way if you're not there. Leadership roles are there at the county level, the state level, in campaigns. It's volunteer work, so people are always looking to fill those positions. In politics there's the impression that older people run local and state parties. Unless younger people involve themselves they won't get their voices heard.

What will the Republican Party look like 10 or 15 years from now? Do you see any shifts happening?

A lot of the party will be shaped by the outcome of future elections. Winning or losing an election, especially a presidential election, can really change a party.

What's changed since you got started in the party?

Younger voters are targeted more. They're not written off as much. And there's less of a "wait your turn" mentality. You used to hear people say, you're too young to run. But we've seen in the Republican Party a lot of young candidates involving themselves. The way younger people communicate, there's Facebook, there's Twitter, all these ways to react to a specific demographic. Embracing these knew technologies, as President Obama did in 2008, really does get the message out. It's effective, so that's one reason younger candidates are attractive.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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