Former RNC Chair: Cut Through Biases
At an Oct. 18 talk held by Columbia Law School’s Federalist Society, businessman and former chairman of the Republican National Committee Ken Mehlman offered this career advice to Law School students: “Bring something different to the table. It’s the single best thing you can do to be successful and passionate about what you are doing.”
This mantra guided Mehlman during his 12 years in national politics and government service, including time spent serving as the 62nd chairman of the RNC, as manager of President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, and in high-level positions in Congress and the White House. He currently serves as a member at the global investment firm KKR & Co., helping the firm better invest by understanding public policy, regulatory, societal and geopolitical issues, and leading KKR’s responsible investment efforts. Mehlman also oversees the investment firm’s global external affairs activities, including corporate marketing, regulatory affairs, and public policy and communications. Before joining KKR, Mehlman spent a year as an attorney and partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
According to Mehlman, most of his colleagues at KKR look at investments through a financial or operational lens, while he uses a framework based on public policy, regulations, reputation, and stakeholders when considering possible investments. He also discussed his time in politics, where he focused on expanding the appeal of the GOP, particularly among non-white voters, and deploying new technologies to mobilize and persuade voters. “Don’t go to work in a place where everyone is like you,” Mehlman said. “Help an organization to get a job done by bringing something new.”
In 2010, after coming out as gay in an interview in The Atlantic, Mehlman, who went to Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama, joined with others in making the conservative case for marriage equality. He decided to help fight “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” by voluntarily speaking with key senators about repealing the policy. A few years later, in 2013, Mehlman filed an amicus brief challenging California’s Proposition 8, which was signed by more than 100 prominent Republicans. In 2015, his brief calling for the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriage nationwide received more than 300 Republican signatures.
During a Q&A session moderated by Social Justice Initiative’s Rachel Pauley, Columbia Law School’s director of Government Programs, one student asked Mehlman if he would ever consider a return to politics.
“I believe life is best lived in chapters,” he responded, saying he has other plans, each with a mission-driven focus. These include being involved in criminal justice reform and starting a foundation focused on education.
Mehlman closed his discussion with another piece of advice: Surround yourself with those who are different from you and learn from them.
“Don’t let yourselves be in an intellectual cul-de-sac; don’t let yourselves be in a place where the folks around you all think the same way,” he urged the audience. “The purpose of the law is to cut through biases—to be able to look at the facts and come to some level of truth. Neither side has all the truth…the way for a democracy to truly get to the truth is through a synthesis between what people on one side say and what people on the other side say. And lawyers and law students on both sides can work to accomplish that.”
Posted November 2, 2016