On a recent Sunday afternoon, as another winter day's meager sunlight fades into night, Graham Veysey is sitting in a Starbucks on Clifton Boulevard near Cleveland's Lakewood border. He's sipping on a murky green health drink and chatting about his favorite subjects: politics, sustainability, his communications business, and the civic projects he's involved with around town.
As others start to head home to decompress before their work week, Veysey — a clean-cut, preppy-looking 29-year-old — orders a coffee to go and jumps into his Jeep for a two-hour drive to Toledo. He'll get there just in time for the shift change at the Jeep assembly plant. No, he doesn't have a beef with the workers who put together his car. He's stumping for their vote.
When Ohio's new congressional district map was unveiled in September, Cuyahoga County bore the brunt of the mapmakers' politically motivated creativity. No longer was the western half of Cuyahoga a single district, currently represented by Dennis Kucinich. Instead, its western lakefront communities and some of its southwest inner-ring suburbs are now linked to Toledo in a skinny, 100-mile district that runs along Lake Erie's beaches. The new map places veteran representatives Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur of Toledo in the same district, and in the same race for one seat.
Then there's the other guy who wants it too.
"If we'd been sitting here a year ago, I'd never have predicted we'd be talking about a congressional race," Graham Veysey says. He decided to run "when the potential of two career politicians became our only option."
As debates raged in Columbus over the new map, Veysey quietly collected the necessary 1,000 signatures to run, tapping family, friends, and people he worked with. Then a mid-December revision to the map pushed the congressional primary from June to March 6, giving the unknown candidate even less time to get himself known.
"It's a sprint," he says, referring to his campaign strategy, which goes like this: Focus for 20 days on letting people know he's running, focus the next 20 on getting his ideas out, and wrap up with 20 days of getting the vote out.
Already, it's idea time.
"We're going down I-90, and I'm driving and he's making calls," says Veysey's campaign manager, 26-year-old Jason Russell, who previously ran successful campaigns for Cleveland Councilman Brian Cummins and county Councilman Dan Brady. "We've been doing seven days a week, 14-hour days. When I worked for Dan Brady, we had nine months to set up a schedule. Now we have to meet with everyone tomorrow. With the district being so spread out, it's even more challenging."
Russell left his job at Civic Commons — a nonprofit with a mission of sparking conversations about civic issues — in early January to be Veysey's point man. The two met in 2010, when Veysey was working on a video for Civic Commons.
"I know I could be out of work March 6," Russell says. "But one of my deep-seated things is there are not enough young individuals in decision-making positions in Cuyahoga County. He exemplifies what I believe we need in this area."
Veysey is part of a group of young activists, entrepreneurs, and aspiring civic leaders who constitute Cleveland's "Generation Next." A Shaker Heights native, he attended University School before heading to Bates College, a highly selective liberal arts school in Maine with an Oberlin-like reputation for student idealism and activism. There, he became involved in his first political campaign: working on a state issue in 2000 barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. It didn't pass, but a similar issue eventually did. In 2004, Veysey put classwork on hold to volunteer for Howard Dean's ill-fated presidential campaign. In 2008, he returned to Ohio for the Obama campaign. That's when he decided to stay.
"I think there was a renaissance under way before I came back," he says, ticking off a list of promising signs. "I thought there was opportunity to start a business and get involved with innovative things people are doing."
He founded his media production company, North Water Partners, and bought the old fire station at the corner of West 29th and Church, where he lives and runs a second business called Cowork Cle, which rents shared workspace to small-time business owners. He also became involved in the community, joining other young activists in founding the Cleveland Coalition to facilitate conversations about issues like government transparency, and becoming a member of a Cleveland City Planning Commission group tasked with providing input on the design of public space downtown.
If Veysey isn't short on ideas, his ideas are a mixed bag. He's already settled into certain campaign catchphrases like "There's no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot" — his way of expressing that problems must be attacked from multiple angles. His pro-NAFTA stance won't endear him to the district's blue-collar workers. He would "go in and hit my head against the wall as much as possible" to pass the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants brought to this county as children to get an education and become citizens. And he would support the Start-Up Act, which extends visas for anyone who has start-up dollars for a business plan. Unlike Kaptur, he is pro-choice and favors stem-cell research.
"Fresh" is the largest word on Veysey's newly minted campaign handout, and it's a word he falls back on with frequency. He's fond of noting Kucinich and Kaptur's combined 70 years in politics, and that Kaptur first won election the year he was born. "Dennis had been elected and thrown out of office by then," he adds.
While Kucinich historically does not so much as acknowledge his opponents, Kaptur has reached out to Veysey through her campaign manager, Steve Fought. Friends who knew Veysey had told him "You have to meet this guy." And when they met, Fought says, they had a conversation "so great, I wish we had videotaped it." Kaptur herself met him briefly — too briefly, she says, to form a strong opinion. But, she adds, "He's a very engaging young man."
"He's going to do great things," Fought says of Veysey. "I love this guy. I wish he weren't in the same race."
Veysey offers no such reservations to either opponent.
"They will get all the endorsements," he concedes. "They will get all the union support. They will far outraise me. Our strategy is, on March 6, they will split all the people who don't want a fresh face.
"Is it David and Goliath?" he asks. "No, it's David and two Goliaths. But I wouldn't run if I didn't think I had a chance."