Next weekend, the former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander will be in New Orleans, serving as the keynote speaker for the Louisiana Democratic Party’s annual dinner (formerly known as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner; this year, the event is called the True Blue Gala). It’s one of several events throughout the country that Kander has headlined.
Two weeks ago, on behalf of The Bayou Brief, I spoke with Kander about the future of the Democratic Party, his newly-launched organization, Let America Vote, which seeks to combat voter suppression efforts across the country, and the best ways to convince and empower more young people to run for elective office.
Last year, Kander, 36, ran for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Roy Blunt, and although he lost the election, his second-place finish, within only 3% and fewer than 100,000 votes, stunned prognosticators and pundits. He outperformed Sec. Hillary Clinton in his state by more than sixteen points, an outstanding performance, which has led many, including former President Barack Obama, to label Kander as “the future of the Democratic Party.”
For those unfamiliar with Missouri politics, Kander is perhaps best known nationally for a campaign commercial that quickly went viral.
I began by asking him about high school debate.
Kander was born in Overland Park, Kansas and met his future wife on the local debate circuit. As it turns out, my very first debate coach was from Overland Park, dispatched to Central Louisiana one summer to lead a debate camp for a group of incoming eighth graders at Brame Junior High in Alexandria, and a friend of mine from college, Becca, was one of Kander’s opponents in high school. “I remember him as a very serious foe. He and his (debate) partner were well-known as some of the best on the circuit,” Becca told me.
If you have the opportunity to speak with Jason Kander, one quality is immediately obvious: He is defiantly optimistic. The word “defiant” is intended as a compliment, because frequently, as a consequence of Trump’s election, it has become convenient for many Democrats to adopt a default position of cynical pessimism.
Kander is a contrast: He’s witty, sharp, undeniably Midwestern, and, on Twitter, occasionally irreverent, particularly when responding to scandal du jour of the Trump administration.
Most importantly, Jason Kander is also passionate and unapologetically himself, and it’s advice he shares with young people interested in a career in public service. Be true to yourself. If you want to run for office, don’t be lulled into believing that you should wait until things get easier. They never will. If you’re compelled, capable, and motivated to serve your city or your parish (county) or your state, don’t waste too much time overthinking it.
Democrats desperately need a new generation of leadership, and Jason Kander may be one of the best in the country to help motivate, recruit, and develop a bench.
While he was an undergraduate at American University in Washington D.C., 19 hijackers commandeered four large airliners and used those planes to inflict the largest and deadliest attack on our nation’s soil since Pearl Harbor. Kander was a junior on Sept. 11, 2001, and he was immediately drawn to volunteer his help. At first, he and a friend attempted to donate blood, but when told that the blood bank had already reached its capacity, he decided to do something much more dramatic and life-changing: He signed up for the Army National Guard.
Within the next year, Kander enrolled in law school at Georgetown. His training with the school’s ROTC battalion earned him a commission, and shortly thereafter, the newly-minted Lt. Kander volunteered for service in Afghanistan. During his six years in the military, Kander was effusively praised by his superiors in his performance evaluations.
“An outstanding leader and a superb intelligence officer. Kander is one of the very best junior officers I’ve ever worked with in my military career,” his senior officer, a colonel with the title of Director of Intelligence, wrote on his very first evaluation in 2007. “He should be groomed for advancement and promoted immediately. Place him in a position of command ASAP.”
“Kander is a tremendous asset to the Missouri Army National Guard and should be promoted to Captain,” read the 2008 report. “Outstanding officer.” That same year, the then-27-year-old Kander won his first election, a seat in the Missouri State House of Representatives. His military career officially ended in 2011, with an honorable discharge with the rank of captain, but his career in public service was just getting started.
In 2012, at only 31 years old, Kander ran and won the race for Missouri Secretary of State, and his experience in that office has likely animated and informed the mission of his new organization, Let America Vote. Kander is no fan of his neighboring Secretary of State, Kris Kobach of Kansas, who is also the vice chairman of President Donald Trump’s voter integrity task force.
The task force was created to investigate Trump’s assertion that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election, thereby denying Trump a popular vote victory. For Kander, “it’s the biggest lie Donald Trump has ever told,” which is saying something, considering the President also claimed his inauguration was the most-attended of all-time, that Ted Cruz’s father may have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that his campaign had never colluded with anyone associated with the Russian government, that Barack Obama had forged his own birth certificate and was therefore ineligible to serve as the President, and, most recently, that many of those who joined in a white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally were “good people.”
The lie about massive voter fraud, which has never been substantiated, is the most pernicious to Kander because it is expressly designed to justify widespread disenfranchisement. “It’s un-American,” Kander said. “They pretend as if this is about policy, but it’s not. It’s about politics.”
Kander, pardon the pun, is known for his candor. It’s what Missouri voters have always admired about him and why he nearly defeated a Republican Senator that many had assumed would be able to walk back into office with ease. Honesty builds credibility, Kander points out, even if that requires Democratic candidates in red states to tackle difficult questions about abortion or LGBT rights or gun control. Again, be true to yourself.
I asked him what he thought about the divide on the left between Hillary Clinton voters and Bernie Sanders voters, and almost immediately, he rejected the underlying premise of the question. This can’t be framed as a debate about two people, he argued, because it must be a discussion about building consensus around policies and ideas. His point is somewhat aspirational, but it is the better message.
He is still hopeful.
Recently, he has been touring the country, which provides him with unique insight into the American zeitgeist. I told him that I have also recently been on a tour of sorts, here in Louisiana, and I mentioned that I continue to meet people, often in their fifties and sixties, who are becoming politically active and involved either for the very first time in their lives or the very first time in decades.
“It’s not just people our age,” I said, “and it’s not just college kids. I’m seeing a political reawakening.”
He agreed, and this is what makes him defiantly optimistic. “I was in Tennessee recently, and when I was there, an older woman who volunteered for the party took me around and introduced me to people. She seemed to know everyone,” he said. “I assumed she’d been doing this for several years, so I asked her when she got her start. ‘January 20, 2017,’ she said. Inauguration Day.”
When you meet people like that woman in Tennessee or the members of the Indivisible groups here in Louisiana, it becomes exponentially more difficult to dismiss Kander’s optimism as naïveté.
If you listen to Kander, you may be reminded at times of a young state senator who catapulted to the forefront of American politics in 2004 with a simple message: Hope is a more powerful organizing principle than hate.