NEW YORK – When David Burrows took on Barry Goldwater and Ayn Rand as “mentors” at age 14, his parents wanted to know what else he was doing that they might be ashamed of.
Andrew LaGrone’s grandmother was an Edmund Muskie delegate at the Democratic National Convention in 1972 and was stunned when Andrew became a Republican at 19.
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., Jake Wagner’s dad assumed he’d be a Democrat. Not.
While young people have gone “liberal” on their conservative parents for decades, teen crossovers to the GOP are more of a rarity. How do parental Dems and their Republican kids manage the familial bond when partisan politics are on the line?
As the Republican National Convention got off to a slow start Monday in Tampa, Fla., President Barack Obama continues his effort to get young people to the polls. Obama leads Mitt Romney 54 percent to 38 percent among voters younger than 35, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll.
No matter. The 21-year-old LaGrone in Nebraska and 19-year-old Wagner in New Hampshire are staying busy marshaling campus support for the Romney-Ryan ticket as they looked back on where it all began.
Burrows, 50 and living in his hometown of Dallas, has lost both his parents, but he remembers their reaction to his Republican awakening like it was yesterday.
His dad threatened to cut him off financially once he told his parents he had broken from his Democratic roots to become head of the Baylor University GOP in 1983 – and a year later, chairman of the college Republicans of Texas.
“My dad made a comment about, ‘well, the Republican Party’s for rich people so maybe you should get your rich friends to pay your tuition,’” Burrows said, “and I was, like, ‘uh oh, what have I done?’”
And mom? She would drop him off at the library while she went shopping. That’s where he discovered Rand and Goldwater, the longtime Arizona senator and Mr. Conservative himself.
“My mom patted me and she goes, ‘Well that’s good for you, but let’s just keep this a secret in the family,’” he said. “I never understood how they lumped in my political views with taking drugs, having illicit sex and cheating on exams, but it somehow carried with it the same ‘immoral’ baggage.”
Burrows did persuade his mother to vote Republican once, and he crossed back over himself for the first time to support Obama. He doesn’t know how he’ll vote in November but has never forgotten the emotional turmoil of his political estrangement from his parents.
Wagner said the first person his mother voted for in a presidential election was Michael Dukakis in 1988. Growing up, his parents instilled in him an interest in U.S. history, presidents and politics. They were lifelong Democrats, and his passion for John McCain was a stunner.
But Wagner’s father, Peter, said he admires his son’s fire for politics.
“Whether you like it or not, this is his opinion,” he said. “You’ve got to support your son or daughter, whatever their passion is. Vote for Wagner in 2040. That’s when he’s going to run for president.”
LaGrone is chairman of the Nebraska college Republicans. His paternal grandmother was a Muskie delegate in Miami Beach in 1972 and once ran as a Democrat for the Colorado House of Representatives. His father worked on her campaign. His stepsister is a teachers’ union leader and his stepmother is a classic liberal.
His GOP turnaround came as a senior in high school. He was president of the Nebraska DECA, an organization for young people interested in business, when federal funding for the group dried up and he helped procure state funding to make up the shortfall.
“It opened my eyes to the importance of fiscal conservatism,” LaGrone said.
He was 18 at the time. Before that, it was all about the family party.
“When I was in fourth grade there was a mock election. I asked my parents who I was supposed to vote for and they both told me Al Gore. There was discussion around the home, but it just wasn’t very in-depth and policy-driven,” he said. “It was more, well, you vote for the Democrat because they’re Democrat. I realized that I didn’t agree with Democrats.”
His father was “shocked,” he said. “A lot of times I think parents do just assume you’ll be what they are.” Grandparents, too.
LaGrone voted for the first time in 2008, around his birthday.
“My grandmother left me a message telling me happy birthday, and how disappointed she was in my choice – John McCain.”
The question of politics falls right in with religion when it comes to tricky parenting, said Jim Fay, co-author of Parenting Teens with Love & Logic.
What does he recommend parents do when sons and daughters announce political views in conflict with their own?
“It doesn’t matter what the kid is talking about if you say, ‘Oh, thanks for sharing that, I’ve always wondered how teenagers saw that.’”
Are most parents that open-minded?
“I doubt it,” Fay said.
Remember that guy Wagner’s mother voted for in 1988? Michael Dukakis. Young Republican Alex P. Keaton and his liberal, ex-hippie parents were still on the air in “Family Ties,” the popular NBC series punctuated by their political divide during the Reagan years.
Evan Draim, 17, wasn’t alive in 1988. The high school senior from northern Virginia is the youngest delegate to the Republican National Convention. He told The Washington Post his political preference skips his parents’ generation to his maternal grandparents – Hungarians who fled to America after World War II.
“I view it as my responsibility to give back to the country that has given them so much, and I want to make sure the American dream that helped my ancestors is there for future generations of immigrants and graduating students,” Draim told the newspaper before the convention began.
As for Dukakis, he teaches now at Northeastern University and cares deeply about public service for young people. He worked on a new, free website, conventions.cps.neu.edu/, intended as a nonpartisan call for high schoolers and college students of any ilk.
How would the Democratic stalwart have felt if one of his three children – now grown – had taken a turn to the right, especially at an early age?
“I wouldn’t have been happy, but I would have been happy that he or she was deeply and actively involved in public affairs and public life,” he said.
Dukakis does have a son-in-law who is a moderate Republican: “But I love him dearly.”