Prizm News / July 1, 2018 / By Laura Newpoff
Garrett Baldwin is an openly gay high school swimmer whose part time job is at a local burger joint. He’s looking for a promotion to the Ohio House of Representatives.
By Laura Newpoff
Don’t tell Garrett Baldwin he’s an underdog.
The resident of Mechanicsburg, a tiny village of 1,600 in rural Champaign County, says he’ll be the next state representative from a district midway between Dayton
and Columbus. He’s a Democrat running in the reddest slice of Trump Country. He’s prepared to be dramatically outspent by Republican incumbent Nino Vitale.
Oh, and he’s openly gay and just finished his junior year at Mechanicsburg High School.
“When I win I plan to apply to the Board of Education for early graduation,” Baldwin says. “So I’ll be graduating in January and then also starting the (legislative) term in January.”
Baldwin, who turned 18 in May, traces his interest in politics to the wee hours of the November night in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president. He had stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to watch the results roll in. He was in second grade.
“It excited me. I can’t believe that at 8 years old I wanted to do that with my Tuesday night, but I did,” he says. “I watched him on television from the beginning of the election. It was the feeling of victory, watching Obama win, that contributed to my desire to follow politics. Looking back, I would say that I definitely picked the right candidate that year.”
In the years that followed, his political interest held, and in 2016, he dipped a toe in the political waters. Baldwin, then 16, wanted to help elect Hillary Clinton, so he volunteered with the Ohio Democratic Party to knock on doors across the countryside and help with events and fundraising. He spent a couple hours between school pep rallies and Friday night football games making calls at the local Democratic headquarters, where “Stronger Together” signs taped to the windows shaded the mid-October sun.
This past January, Baldwin decided the toe-dip wasn’t enough. The high school swimmer dove into the race in the 85th House District, which hasn’t fielded a Democratic candidate in eight years. He says he’s running as an antidote to the Republican super-majority controlling Ohio’s state government and to the hyper-partisanship that divides the nation.
“I see a real opportunity to reach out to moderates who are fed up with the extreme right,” he says.
Baldwin is undaunted by the notion that running as an openly gay teenager in a district that’s overwhelmingly straight, older and conservative-leaning might come off as kind of crazy.
“I don’t believe being gay in this area is as weird as it seems. It’s not a big deal,” he says. “The voters I’ve spoken to so far, they just want to know what I stand for.”
His district includes all of Champaign County and portions of Logan and Shelby counties. Their votes for Trump in 2016: 70 percent, 74.2 percent and 78.5 percent, respectively.
DIFFICULT, BUT WORTH IT
Baldwin is an A student who has served as class president and a student council officer and just enlisted in the Ohio Army National Guard. He’s president of the National Honor Society and was voted prom prince in May. He’s a cheerleader who’d love to cheer at Ohio State University. If he wins, though, he’ll study political science at Urbana University.
Since deciding to run, Baldwin has taken up the art of juggling. Running for political office is time-consuming for anyone, but especially for a student with school all day and a job at MIXX 165, a local burger and beer joint where he grills steaks and pork chops and pitches in as a food runner. During the school year, he had to wait until nighttime to call to potential donors and schedule events.
His weekends are booked with meet-and-greets like one in May at the Spotted Cow Coffeehouse in Urbana and appearances at parades in places like Bellefontaine, where voters are just learning about him.
Baldwin is the first person in his family to attend college and already has 18 credits from Urbana University. Over the summer, he’s taking more college classes and will attend the university full-time during his senior year of high school. It all adds up to “extremely difficult but definitely worth it” for the teenager.
His Republican opponent is a darling of anti-gay conservatives. Vitale made headlines in June with passage by the Ohio House of a bill that forbids lawsuits against places of worship that refuse to sanction same-sex marriages. He bragged after the vote of support from the Liberty Counsel, an organization that the Human Rights Campaign says has worked with Ugandan lawmakers behind that nation’s efforts to impose the death penalty on LGBTQ people.
By late May, Baldwin had raised $3,600. According to Ballotpedia.org, Vitale had campaign contributions of $131,212 in 2014 and $59,811 in 2016.
“My mom doesn’t bring in a whole lot of money, so the expenses have to come from my pocket,” Baldwin says. “I pay for my insurance, my gas and my phone.”
His family dynamic is a big part of why he’s interested in public service. He grew up with a single mom who earned minimum wage working 50-hour weeks to support five children. He spent his childhood moving from house to house in Urbana and St. Paris, and the family relied on government programs such as Medicaid to survive.
He has no relationship with a father who has served prison time for domestic violence. That less-than-idyllic upbringing shaped the way he views those less fortunate and helped him develop a campaign platform focused on poverty and opioid solutions and fixes to education funding.
“There’s so much partisanship, and we have two parties that cannot come together and pass legislation,” Baldwin says. “We have reasonable solutions that my campaign is pushing for.”
Betsy Baldwin, Garrett’s 42-year-old mom, is a cashier at Winner’s One Stop, a market that sits beside Marathon gas pumps on the south side of Mechanicsburg and is known for its signature hot subs.
Until age 40 she had never voted for anything. After her son convinced her, she cast her first ballot in November 2016.
“We’re not a political family,” she says. “My mom and dad have never voted in their life. Garrett’s totally opened my eyes to all of this stuff, so I know now how important it is that you vote so your opinion counts.”
Betsy Baldwin says she sometimes finds herself awestruck that this is really happening. She says her son is “determined and is his own person, that’s for sure.” She’s especially proud of how he has found his way to this moment. His politics, she says, are his alone.
“Garrett hasn’t been raised as a Republican or a Democrat. He’s done all of this in his own mind; it’s his own research,” she says.
Laura Reed is Baldwin’s campaign manager and the Mechanicsburg Exempted Village School District psychologist. She met him volunteering in 2016 and was instantly struck by his maturity. He was one of the best volunteers, she said. He has a presence about him, a confidence.
“He takes on challenges. He shows tremendous courage. Being openly gay, that’s kind of rough in this type of neighborhood. But people who get to know Garrett, they see him for who he is. It’s not like he’s known as a gay kid. He’s known as Garrett who is politically active. I’ve had people tell me they don’t approve…but they still like Garrett. Here, I think that’s a step forward.”
They’ve used training offered by the party to learn about finances and ethics rules, but what really was stressed was the importance of making connections. If that’s what the election will be decided on, Reed agrees, the well-liked Baldwin is no underdog.
“We know we are up against a staunch Republican in a staunch Republican area. But we’ve got a plan,” she says. “We don’t say, ‘If we win,’ we say, ‘When we win.”
Laura Newpoff is a longtime Central Ohio journalist who spent nearly 20 years as an editor and reporter at Columbus Business First. She started freelancing in February. Follow her at lauranewpoff.com or on Twitter @lauranewpoff.