Tom Eblen

‘We’re going to infiltrate them.’ Kentucky group grows national effort on bipartisanship.

College seniors participating in the annual Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship program tour the Capitol as part of a week-long session in Washington.
College seniors participating in the annual Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship program tour the Capitol as part of a week-long session in Washington. Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship

Political polarization hasn’t been this bad since the Civil War, and it is seems to be getting worse every day. But a Lexington-based organization that has been working for a decade to encourage bipartisan cooperation in the next generation of American leaders is planning a new push, including an office in the nation’s capital.

The non-profit Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship recently received a $217,000grant from Louisville’s James Graham Brown Foundation to pay for two years of a Washington presence as it works to increase other fundraising for its two annual education programs.

Each summer, 50 rising college seniors — one from each state, appointed by their state’s senior senator — attend a week-long program in Lexington where they learn about government from politicians and policymakers. The focus is on debating and negotiating policy proposals on controversial issues.

“They leave here with the experience of having realized the other person’s point of view,” said Robert Clay, founder of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, who co-chairs the center with advertising executive William Giles. “It’s a pretty rewarding thing for us to hear what they got out of the week.”

The program is run by the University of Kentucky’s Martin School of Public Policy and Administration. Previously, it was led by UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

A Washington component was added two years ago, when 10 of the students spent a second week there. This year, 25 students were there, based at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. Clay hopes to take all 50 students to Washington next year. The new Washington staff member will help arrange internships for students.

The grant also will help support a similar summer program for high school students based at Transylvania University. It consists mostly of students from Kentucky and is done in cooperation with the Kentucky Educational Development Corp.

Students participate in both programs at no cost, Clay said,so “from a financial point of view, we almost live year to year.”

The Brown Foundation gave $250,000 to help start the Henry Clay Center in 2007. Since then, the center’s programs have been run with private donations, mostly from people and companies in Central Kentucky.

Rob Givens, a retired Air Force brigadier general who recently became the center’s executive director, has launched a national fundraising campaign. “We need to find long-term ways of more sustainable fundraising,” he said.

The center’s programs have graduated more than 700 participants over the past decade, some of whom now work in government. At least 10 have become state legislators, and one is now running for federal office in North Dakota.

“Our mission is really two-fold,” Givens said. “One is the legacy of Henry Clay and to try and develop the leaders of tomorrow. The other piece is to try to bring Kentucky and things that are good about Kentucky to the national stage.”

The center’s honorary co-chairs are two former U.S. Senators— Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Tom Daschle of South Dakota— who co-authored the 2016 book, “Crisis Point: Why We Must — and How We can — Overcome Our Broken Politics in Washington and Across America.”

Clay said applicants aren’t asked about their political leanings,but the breakdown between conservatives and liberals is usually pretty even.

“Some of them come in very strident,” he said, adding that by researching, debating and negotiating policy solutions to issues the students learn to see other sides. Clay thinks the program can make a difference in the future — a difference that will attract national financial support.

“When we say we’re working on something for bipartisanship, everybody says, ‘Well, good luck with that’!” Clay said. “I say we’re going to infiltrate them one (student) at a time.”