Matt Schlapp, the new chairman of the American Conservative Union and its first born after the group’s founding a half-century ago, is moving quickly to put a uniquely 21st-century touch on one of the political right’s most sacred establishments.
And in classic Generation X fashion, the 40-something strategist who cut his political teeth inside George W. Bush’s White House expects to ruffle a few feathers inside an organization dominated for years by baby boomer conservatives addicted to a steady diet of William F. Buckley Jr., Ronald Reagan and Stan Evans.
“Some will not like our new approach, including some in conservatism’s Old Guard, but we have to take this challenge on,” Mr. Schlapp told The Washington Times. “Our philosophy won’t change, but the challenges facing the country are always new. The same is true for ACU.”
For instance, Mr. Schlapp wants to expand the group’s signature Conservative Political Action Conference from an annual three-day event into a 365-day experience. He plans to accomplish that through online engagement of larger audiences who can’t afford to make the annual pilgrimage to Washington for CPAC or aren’t within easy travel distance of the regional ACU events that his predecessor, Al Cardenas, established.
Social media, online events and instant email alerts are all going to play bigger roles in the group’s grass-roots efforts. The aim is to create a counterbalance to President Obama and the left’s gigantic electronic tether to voters, he said.
And, because the ACU leadership is often made up of lobbyists, lawyers, pollsters and advocacy group executives with their own agendas, he wants to make the ACU’s decisions more transparent by creating an “informal advisory group” to address potential conflicts of interest.
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“These advisers I name will not be toadies but smart people who will push back and say, ‘Hey, we can’t do this or that because,’” said Mr. Schlapp, who, like two of his immediate predecessors, operates his own lobbying firm.
The advisory group will hash over proposed policies and new projects, he said.
“As the new chairman, I will not be making unilateral decisions in the privacy of my office,” he said. “I am going to make sure we have savvy people discussing proposed policies and projects that concern the broader conservative community.”
Mr. Schlapp’s immediate predecessor, Al Cardenas, was a lawyer and lobbyist. The ACU’s longest-serving chairman, now Washington Times opinion editor David A. Keene, was a lobbyist who began his Washington career as an aide to Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.
Like his predecessors, Mr. Schlapp has a reputation for public diplomacy and restraint, and he even sports a healthy head of silver hair (in his case somewhat prematurely for his age of 46).
Big business isn’t always a conservative ally
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But as a classic Generation X member, he also can exude a youthful passion about the issues he cares about deeply, isn’t afraid to be sharply candid and sees a changing landscape in which big business can’t always be seen as the ally of a conservative movement that values liberty above all.
“Americans in this century should not make the assumption that corporations are free market or conservative,” Mr. Schlapp said at one point in the interview. “Rather, they are out to maximize value for shareholders and that often involves too much government.
“Yes, people at the top of American corporations in some cases are politically conservative but in most cases it’s the opposite — they’re not conservative,” he said.
More often than not, lawyers in charge of corporations’ philanthropic decisions are liberals from elite universities, Mr. Schlapp added, making the point that it can be problematic for conservative organizations like his to rely on consistent corporate philanthropy.
Mr. Schlapp said he will survey perceptions “among conservative organizations that have fallen away from us because we haven’t been engaging them. I want to have conversations with supporters who have not given us money in the last five years. And I want to see that our funding program is cutting-edge and modern. From what I have seen, it is not.
“Nor do we have a 21st-century communications program,” he said, “but we will.”
As a board member before running for chairman, Mr. Schlapp headed a committee to bring new blood to the board. He did.
Several members in their 70s and 80s have left the board, replaced by people who are younger by as much as 40 years or more. The youngest new board member is 36-year-old Amy Noone Frederick, president of the 60 Plus Association. Next in age is Ned Ryun, who at 41 is president of the American Majority. Other new board members are Christie Strategies CEO Ron Christie, 44, and polling firm owner Kellyanne Conway, 47.
ACU Executive Director Dan Schneider, appointed to the post seven months ago, is just 47.
A former lobbyist for Koch Industries — whose owners Charles and David Koch are megadonors to conservative interests and betes noir of liberals — Mr. Schlapp has a reputation among some fellow conservatives for principled independence at Koch’s Washington lobbying shop. He had that same reputation for being inner-directed while serving as White House political director during President George W. Bush’s first term. That was during the heyday of the strong-willed Karl Rove, the top Bush strategist at the time.
That streak of independence — and the rise of a new generation of leaders in a conservative movement still heavy with baby boomers — is already ruffling some feathers.
Washington lawyer and longtime ACU board member Cleta Mitchell resigned from the board after Mr. Schlapp was appointed.
Likewise, the Koch empire went out of its way to put some distance between itself and its former lobbyist when Koch General Counsel Mark Holden volunteered a statement to The Times that the pipeline giants had “no working relationship with Matt and we haven’t for a few years” and even suggested that the two sides parted less than amicably.
Mr. Schlapp and his supporters expected such tensions, which reflect in part the generational change inside a conservative movement that has plenty of public fractures — from establishment members fighting rambunctious tea party activists to traditional conservatives fighting libertarians.
To some, such tension might seem daunting. But Mr. Schlapp sees opportunity born through trial, a lesson he learned growing up.
An alcoholic father and a tennis pro mother
“My dad died at 48 of alcoholism,” Mr. Schlapp says, showing no reticence to talk about his personal past. “He was a chemical sales manager for Allied Chemical for most of his professional career. He and I were never close.”
Mr. Schlapp’s mother was a computer programmer for AT&T until she got pregnant and bore four children. She managed to raise a family and become a tennis pro as well. She also evolved from being a liberal Democrat to a conservative Republican, serving two terms as a city council member in Wichita, Kansas.
His mother instilled in him passions for politics and tennis. “She is my hero, my wonder woman with a wicked overhead smash,” he said fondly.
Mr. Schlapp rose to become the No. 1 junior tennis player in Kansas, eventually landing a scholarship to Notre Dame.
He played part of his freshman year but quit to find work to help pay the bills after his father died. “I quit the team as I had to work to pay for school and I didn’t have the time to devote to a sport, even one I cared about,” he said.
With his college future uncertain, Mr. Schlapp’s mother told him to get into his “rust-filled 1965 Mustang, head back to Notre Dame and ask the Holy Cross priests to practice the social justice they always preached.”
“Well, they did. And with the help of a nun who was my house school principal, we cobbled enough money together with loans to be able to finish college at Notre Dame,” he said. “I am proud of that degree because I had to not only study to get it. I had to run an operation to get it. Many people in Wichita gave me money. I still love those people for being good.”
He still holds his passion for tennis. “I am now the club champion [in doubles] at my club and I am teaching my kids the same way my mom taught me,” he boasted.
Raising money, balancing tensions
If tennis is his pastime at night and on weekends, his mission during the day is to transform a conservative organization with a rich history to face the future. His effort has begun with a top-down review of everything the ACU does.
He acknowledged that the group’s website needs considerable improvement, along with its fundraising and direct mail appeals.
Another major task he has set for the ACU is figuring out how to beguile donors, big and small, into sending the ACU’s way anything like the millions of dollars they direct to other organizations on the right.
Those groups include the Heritage Foundation, which had $66 million in contributions and grants in 2011; the American Enterprise Institute, which raised $39 million in 2012; Americans for Prosperity, which alone spent $122 million in 2012; or FreedomWorks, which since the 2010 election cycle has spent $20,264,808.
The ACU’s biggest budget item is the nearly $2 million it spends to hold CPAC, paid for in sponsor donations and ticket sales to the event that this year drew 1,900 registered members of the press, as part of the 8,500 total attendance. ACU barely broke even on the three-day CPAC despite having a small staff modestly paid by Washington standards.
Mr. Schlapp intends to return CPAC to the more modest production it once was and to retain its grass-roots appeal and purpose of bringing people from all over the country — and the world — to exchange ideas and hear from national politicians and local leaders representing various views and specialties on the right.
The ACU is an umbrella organization for hundreds of conservative interest groups and local, state and national think tanks, so the heavy lifting facing Mr. Schlapp also involves keeping good relations with constituent organizations. He intends to do that, in conformity with Reagan’s inclusiveness dictum, while keeping the door open to conservative organizations that some others on the right view with extreme skepticism or outright hostility.
“That’s not to say we are a big tent,” Mr. Schlapp said. “We are a conservative organization — first, last and always.”
The ACU nonetheless “should not shy away from disagreements,” he said. “They can sharpen the mind. That’s how we enlighten ourselves and the hundreds of thousands of people who watched CPAC on television three days out of the year. I’d like to expand that to 365 days a year.”
“To do that, we have to have programs to sell and that make donors excited — and that they know will make a difference,” Mr. Schlapp said. “That is the question for every conservative group out there: How can you make a difference?”
Mr. Schlapp sees, for now at least, the ACU’s role as trying to educate members of Congress and their staffs on the right approach to legislating in ways consistent with conservative principles of individual freedom, relatively free markets and vastly tamed spending.
As for the ACU’s financial future, Mr. Schlapp said, the most important mission is spreading the philosophy of conservatism. The ACU will continue to be about moving the Republican Party, as the self-defined home for conservative politics, to the right on everything from equal opportunities and freedom to fairness and common sense.
“Money alone doesn’t determine success, but that market of donors does tell you whether you are doing something right,” said Mr. Schlapp, offering a future yardstick to measure the success of his reforms.
“If we do the right things and treat people the right way, we will have a great future.”