Trey Grayson is the current President & CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the former Director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics from 2011 to June 2014. While at Harvard, he was known as an expert on the political views of millennials and the role of technology in politics and government. Prior to this, Trey was a two-term Secretary of State of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The youngest Secretary of State in the country at the time of his election, he was recognized as a national leader in government innovation, business services, election administration and civic education and served as Chair of the Republican Association of Secretaries of States and the President of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Before entering politics, Trey was an attorney with the law firms of Greenebaum Doll & McDonald and Keating, Muething & Klekamp. He graduated from Harvard College in 1994.
Harvard Political Review: Rewinding back to when you feel like you found a sense of direction, what was it that led you into politics and service?
Trey Grayson: For me I guess it even went back pretty far. There was not a clarifying, a-ha moment or anything like that. I always joked it would’ve been easier in politics if I did have a story like that. My mom and dad were very involved in the community. My dad was a local banker and involved in every sort of charitable endeavor and involved in politics because it mattered who was elected and deciding on laws, just as the United Way mattered. As a banker he believed in giving a lot of time back because that made the community better, which meant it was a better place to do business. A place that is a better place to live is more likely to grow and make more loans. So I grew up with this example of parents who were involved in the community, not just politically. For whatever reason I got more of the political bug and a desire to run for office than they did, but the example to serve, to volunteer, to give back was something that I saw at a very early age. I don’t know whether they talked about it or just led by example, but regardless, I give them the credit for that and they encouraged me in politics.
The IOP was interesting too, because I showed up at the IOP and Harvard as a registered Democrat who was kind of conservative and not sure where I fit politically. What was nice about the IOP was that that didn’t matter. I could get involved and help bring speakers to campus regardless of politics, or ideology, or what country they were from. It was kind of politics for its own sake. And I did believe in the system; I did believe in democracy and a republic and elections. I loved being able to bring interesting people to campus who might inspire somebody. The thing about the IOP is that you get exposed to different ideas and different elected officials who agree or disagree. I think that shaped my approach to politics because my formidable experience through IOP was in a nonpartisan way. Usually you get involved in politics picking a party, a side of an issue, and even within your own party you’re picking a candidate – Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, John Kasich or Donald Trump. And your person, your issue, your party has opposition. At the IOP our opposition was apathy or ignorance––it’s a different way to get engaged. That gave me a unique perspective on politics, so all of a sudden when I was running for something and became a Republican I had heard all of these Democrats and I been involved and had a lot of respect. Right now in politics it is even harder, and you pick a side right off the bat. People in Congress pose for a photo and then they basically do their orientations separately until they come back and do the IOP’s new member of Congress conference. There wasn’t that event that got me into politics per se, but I see my time at the IOP as a pivotal point in time for me that impacted how I approach politics. That’s in large part why it’s been such a special place for me – it’s why I wanted to be the Director and really enjoyed my three and a half years there and stayed involved with it after.
HPR: I feel the same way right now, having friends on both sides of the aisle and seeing speakers across the spectrum speak at the IOP and change my perspective or make me appreciate theirs. What you said about the partisan nature of politics today leads me to another question. If you look at this election and politics today, there seems to be a lot of vitriol and a sense of disillusionment with the system. How do you think we keep future leaders hopeful and optimistic about politics and the political process?
TG: You’re right, there is a lot of vitriol in this election season and it is a challenge. I would joke with people that if you’re going to run the Institute of Politics, you really have to believe it can work and that these students will change this. But a part of it is really that there have been times like this. I was really struck by how vitriolic the Nixon period was, with the Vietnam War and the assassinations in ‘68, protests at conventions, changing American society and inflation. It was a tough time. Now we’ve got slow growth, terrorism, a changing country before our eyes with diversity, some level of income inequality, and all of these forces are coming together. What I would say is if you think back to ‘68, World War II, and the Depression, we’ve had hard times. What has helped us get through the hard times was the genius of the Constitution and our governance system, and that we allow some of that to play through. Sometimes voters will overreact one way or another, it eventually works itself out. You have to have some level of belief in the system or the institution. And what’s challenging now is that people do have a belief that the system is unfair. According to the Harvard Public Opinion Poll survey, there’s a high percentage of millennials who believe that elections are rigged. There is this disillusionment with institutions, and that’s new. That’s what worries me. Over time, both parties have contributed to trying to undermine institutions and leaders. But I still have this faith that ultimately these institutions will adapt and persevere, and we’ll be in a better spot.
Relatedly, I’d say that even with these problems we are still more or less the world’s biggest economy. Our economic rivals have a lot of challenges that are much bigger than the ones we face. We are slow growing, but that’s better than not growing at all or being in a recession. I still believe what Larry Summers said in 2012 at the New Members of Congress conference, when he said, “I still wouldn’t trade our problems for anybody else’s.” Whether it’s the deficit or anything else, I’d still rather be America than any other country and take America’s future over anybody else’s future. And I still believe that. That’s why I’m working at the Chamber now, trying to help my hometown and home state and help the local businesses and organizations here. That’s why I can do a job like this. A larger part of what we do is advocacy and working to try to make the system work better, but within the system. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I didn’t believe it. So as depressed as I get sometimes with this year’s elections and the candidates, especially on the Republican side of things, ultimately I think it will work itself out. The system has shown its resilience over the years and I think we’ll get there, and hopefully at some point I’ll get to run and serve when the timing’s right.
HPR: So, it is the Harvard IOP’s 50th anniversary. Do you have a favorite memory or stand-out moment from your time there, as a student, alum or Director?
TG: When the IOP had its 30th anniversary party, I was in law school and flew up for it. I walked in the front door to the Forum and entered and saw a former fellow––Frank Luntz. At the time he was a pollster and was morphing to doing more communications work, and he’s famous now for focus groups he does after debates. He and I had become friends when he was a fellow and I was Vice Chair of the IOP Student Advisory committee. Right when he saw me at the reunion he said, “Hi Trey, when are you becoming a Republican?” I said, “Hi Frank, it’s been a couple of years. What have you been up to?” And again he said, “When are you becoming a Republican? You know you’ve always been a Republican but have never jumped and made it official. Why haven’t you switched?” And I finally got him to stop asking me that, but at the end of the conversation I invited him to brunch with some former students at the IOP. The next morning when he came to brunch, he went around asking people why they were Republicans or Democrats and what they thought of the parties, and he wouldn’t let me answer any of the questions. It then became very clear to me that he was trying to get me to think about the Democratic Party and the Republican Party and why somebody is a member of one versus the other, and where I really belong. When I flew home and saw my mom and dad, they asked how the reunion was. I told them that I had a great time and said, “Guess what, Mom and Dad, I’m a Republican!” And I became a Republican shortly thereafter and sent the card in the next week or so. I always think it’s kind of funny that that event happened at the IOP because it was such a big place for me. That’s a very personal thing for me. So I never had a story for how I got involved in politics, but I do have this story about how I became a Republican. It was because of Frank. I wrote him a note with a copy of the voter registration form in it, and said, “See what you’ve done?” This all took place in 1996, so I always think of the irony of how at the Kennedy School of Government after the 1996 election when Bill Clinton had just gotten elected, I became a Republican at the IOP’s 30th. I don’t know if anybody had the same kind of conversion at the 50th, but I had that moment 20 years ago.
HPR: Wow, that’s amazing that Fellows and Study Groups was part of that moment for you, since choosing a party certainly shaped your career in politics. My last question is if you have any advice for people interested in careers in public service?
TG: When I was on the Senior Advisory Committee, before I became the Director, I would come up for meetings and got asked that question a lot. The pitch I always make is that Harvard students come from all over the world to Cambridge for four years. What often happens is that they get recirculated and end up someplace else, like D.C. or New York or London. But, there are a lot of political and public service opportunities back home, and you can make a very big difference at a much younger age if you go back home. There are huge needs and huge opportunities. So in some respects, it is easier to get the job in D.C. or meet people at the IOP who can help you get those, but you can make a really big difference back home. And even if you’re from a really big city you’re going to know some people who can make introductions and who can make it easier to get through that first door. So my advice is that for people who are trying to make a difference, there’s no place like home. And even if you’ve had a mixed experience with your home or it frustrated you, go and fix it. Don’t accept it for what it was; go back and try to make it better. That’s something I always try to encourage people to do.
Image credit: Office of Secretary of State Trey Grayson