From the looks of his resumé, Republican strategist Lanhee J. Chen ’99 might seem like a professional flip-flopper.
Chen, who holds three Harvard degrees and is working on his fourth, has also fashioned a career as a political insider, working for two presidential campaigns, a Washington think tank, and a K Street lobbying group.
“I’ve always been stuck between two fields—I like academia, but I also like being in D.C. and working on policy,” he says.
But in the past decade, Chen has found ways to integrate his interests inside the classroom and inside the Beltway.
“I’m not shy of integrating the theoretical with the practical,” he says of his award-winning work as a Harvard teaching fellow. “When I teach about campaigns, for example, I feel that students appreciate the fact that I have some practical experience.”
Now Chen has ventured across the Charles River to work at Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters, where he serves as domestic policy director.
In politics and in academia, Chen—who took time off from writing his Ph.D. dissertation to join the Romney campaign—consistently makes deep impressions on friends, bosses, and colleagues.
“Both his passion and his patience in his character are what continue to make him so different from so many people I know,” says Bom S. Kim ’00, the founder of 02138 magazine, who lived with Lanhee from 2000 to 2002. “Politics is not just a diversion—[it’s] an integral part of his life.”
Growing up in California, Chen always assumed he would go to Stanford.
“Then I got into Harvard,” he says, “and everyone said, ‘It’s Harvard. You have to go there.’”
Though he had apprehensions about moving to the East Coast, Chen was “sold” when he visited as a pre-frosh.
And he hasn’t really left the University since.
Shahram H. Elghanayan ’99, a college roommate, remembers when Chen sent him a postcard from Alaska during their sophomore year. That was the second time he had received a handwritten postcard from another man.
“It’s a reflection on his character and his ability to be able to keep in touch with people,” said Elghanayan, a managing director for the financial risk-management company BancWare ERisk.
As an undergraduate, Chen was mainly involved with Harvard Model Congress and became the organization’s co-president. He also served as an Undergraduate Council representative for Currier House.
“I did the sort of things people do that have been interested in politics,” Chen says.
Chen’s passion for politics seems to have shown through when he worked as an intern for the Senate Republican Conference one summer in college.
His boss at the time, Laura C. Dove, who is now assistant secretary for the minority in the U.S. Senate, says Chen stands out from her roughly two decades on Capitol Hill.
“There are lot of eager, smart young people who come through,” she says. “He’s absolutely the most impressive 19 year old I’ve ever met.”
NOT IN COLLEGE, BUT STILL AT HARVARD
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in government in 1999, Chen moved to Washington to work as a political consultant. Only a year later, he returned to campus to start his Ph.D.
“It was very appealing to me to be involved and engaged with a particular subject at a very high level and become an expert at it,” Chen says.
His doctoral work focuses on the link between judicial election systems and substantive legal outcomes.
Chen spent a year away from Harvard in 2001-2002, working for an employee benefits advocacy group that represents the interests of major companies. And in 2004, he worked at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington.
In 2004, Chen committed himself to another three years at Harvard when he enrolled at the Law School.
He worked on his law and doctoral degrees concurrently until he received his J.D. earlier this year.
“Lanhee’s an amazing worker,” said Alex N. Wong, his friend and Law School classmate. “I don’t really understand when he had time to study.”
Wong spoke with The Crimson from Iraq, where he is working for the State Department.
While pursuing his graduate studies, Chen became a six-time winner of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning’s award for teaching distinction. The prize is given to teaching fellows who receive more than a 4.5 on the CUE Guide’s five-point scale.
Chen says he consistently brings three main qualities to his teaching: being prepared, being fair, and engaging students in discussions that interest them.
“All in all, Lanhee is terrific,” said Sidney Verba, his dissertation adviser. “He’s just the kind of person you really want for a TF.”
Verba, who held one of Harvard’s 21 University professorships until he retired last year, adds that Chen really knows how to connect with undergraduates.
Candice Chiu ’04, who was in one of Chen’s sections and considers him a mentor, describes him as a “person that’s always juggling 20 things on his plate at one time.”
“Somehow,” she says, “he always manages to be on top of things and makes time for all his friends.”
Now, sitting in a conference room at the Romney for President campaign headquarters in Boston’s North End, Chen’s excitement at being domestic policy director is evident.
He glows when talking about going on the road with Romney in August.
“It was a hectic week, but I got an opportunity to shape a policy area and get to know the Governor as a leader and a person,” Chen said.
Romney, a graduate of the Law School and the Business School, served as Massachusetts’s governor from 2003 to 2007.
Chen isn’t new to the presidential campaign trail. He worked as a health policy adviser for President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
Chen considers politics “a very contact-driven profession.”
“It always raises eyebrows when I appear on panels with people who don’t look like me, or are a lot older, or look like they had more experience than me,” Chen says. “It’s always great to destroy the stereotypes and show you can still be an effective advocate for a political issue, or in my case, for the office of president.”
Kim, the 02138 founder and former roommate, said he has gained respect for Chen because of his passion, dedication, and open-mindedness.
“Lanhee genuinely loves his country,” Kim says, “and not in a cheesy way.”
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Chen’s birthday is the Fourth of July.