On Sept. 23, over 40 students and faculty gathered in Brandi Recital Hall. After a brief introduction by Schuyler Stupica ’19 of Kenyon Democrats, Ken Harbaugh — Democratic candidate for Ohio’s 7th district seat in the House of Representatives — took the stage. He wore a white polo shirt and gray stretch pants, and moved back and forth across the room as he talked. He spoke casually but sincerely, conveying a sense of urgency without panic.
Harbaugh, a former U.S. Navy pilot and one-time president of Team Rubicon Global, a disaster relief organization run by veterans, has never held public office before. He presents himself as an outsider candidate — someone not attached to the politics in Washington, whose views are founded in policy at the broad and local level. His campaign centers around door-to-door canvassing, much of it done by Harbaugh himself.
“I’ve actually been really surprised at how rarely I’m asked what party I’m from,” Harbaugh said. “I think that’s a really, really hopeful sign. Ohioans, for the most part, still think for themselves, and they’re not walled in by the R or D label.”
Sunday was not Harbaugh’s first appearance at Kenyon. In April 2017, before Harbaugh had officially launched his campaign, Kenyon Democrats brought him to campus to speak. After Harbaugh declared his candidacy, Kenyon Democrats worked with him over the summer to organize another visit.
The event, structured as a town hall, gave audience members a chance to pose questions to Harbaugh and get answers directly. It was a format chosen to showcase Harbaugh’s personal angle and his penchant for community engagement. While Harbaugh enjoys the town hall format, it isn’t his preferred way of interacting with constituents.
“My favorite is probably a one-on-one with a stranger,” he said. “[Someone] who didn’t sign up, who just opened the door on a Saturday afternoon. That, I think, is the gold standard in understanding — in understanding what’s going on, in understanding how the way I talk about something is received. I really look forward to those conversations.”
Over the course of an hour, Harbaugh spoke about subjects ranging from the opioid epidemic to the Affordable Care Act to politics within the Trump administration. He also talked about getting young people to vote in November. When a student asked Harbaugh how to change the minds of people who refuse to register to vote, he said it only truly frightens him when young people skimp on performing their civic duties.
“The ability of young people to question, to accept and often demand change is the most powerful force in our society today,” he said. “But unless we translate that energy and that idealism and that ability to question into votes, it’s not gonna matter, because we’re still a democracy.”