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At the Harvard Faculty Club on Wednesday night, surrounded by over 75 friends and supporters at a fundraiser to support his campaign, John J. Cranley seemed to be on top of the world.
And with many key endorsements secured, a steady flow of funds and a Democratic nomination for Congress in his hands, Cranley has a right to be.
Not bad for a 26 year old.
The current Harvard Divinity School student and 1999 Harvard Law School graduate is poised to take on incumbent Republican Steve Chabot in November's race for Ohio's first Congressional district.
And while pundits say Cranley is unlikely to win, he is inspiring support around Harvard and beyond.
Cranley is probably best known to undergraduates for his work as a Teaching Fellow (TF). He was a TF for Moral Reasoning 22: "Justice" and History B-61: "The Warren Court" from the fall of 1998 to the fall of 1999.
Cranley's exuberance in the classroom was palpable, according to his former students, and his deep commitment to social justice was the driving force in his life.
He now promises that the same values will spearhead of his campaign.
"He seemed very involved in the class, very passionate about the topic of social justice, but left room for everyone's opinion," said Gabriela C. Gonzalez '03, a student in his Justice section this fall. "I found he has a good sense of right and wrong, that's why he'd be a good Congressman. He has a real sense of justice."
Cranley connected with some of his students so well that many of them turned out for his fundraising event at the Faculty Club, and at least one student is prepared to dedicate a good deal of his future time and energy into his campaign.
Franklin J. Leonard '00, who first got to know Cranley as a student in his fall '98 Warren Court section, has agreed to stay with Cranley and work his campaign full time until the election. Leonard said he has no long term political ambitions--he just thinks Cranley would be a good addition to the U.S. House of Representatives.
"When [Cranley] called me I was in New Hampshire for the primaries, and I decided then and there I'd do it for him," Leonard said. "It's rare to get to jump into a campaign with a candidate who's as young [and] exciting...as John Cranley."
"Cranley is incredibly charismatic, and he has a real commitment to people," Leonard added. "His campaign slogan is 'Faith in People' and with John Cranley that is a whole lot more than sloganeering. He is committed to people in Cincinnati and the world at large."
Cranley's candidacy has also begun to turn heads in Washington, as Democrats hope to recapture the House this fall after six years of Republican control. Democrats are gunning for Chabot's seat because he served as one of the 13 managers in President Clinton's impeachment hearing.
If the Democrats can get a net gain of six seats nationwide, they will retake control of Congress.
Therefore, according to Cranley, the Democratic National Committee is prepared to flood money and organizational support into any race where a Democratic challenger has a chance to unseat an incumbent Republican.
And Cranley hopes to be their man.
His fight is for the pivotal Ohio's first Congressional District, which includes most of urban Cincinnati and some of its western suburbs.
Cranley describes this area as largely Catholic, African-American and working class. The district has voted for Clinton in the past two presidential elections, but has returned Chabot to office twice already.
"My opponent is a hard worker, and a genuinely nice guy. But he simply doesn't represent the district," Cranley said.
In fact the district had traditionally voted Democratic prior to Chabot's first win in 1994.
Chabot came to power as a so-called "Gingrich Freshman," part of the wave of new Republicans who ended 50 years of Democratic control of Congress and propelled former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich into power.
In that election, Chabot defeated Democratic incumbent David Mann, with a considerable 20,000-vote margin. He won re-election in 1996 against Democratic challenger Mark Longabaugh by a margin of 23,605.
In 1998, Chabot defeated the well-liked former mayor of Cincinnati, Roxanne Qualls (also a current IOP fellow) with 53 percent of the vote, a race in which the Democratic National Committee had poured in money and support.
Democrats were determined to try to oust Chabot in this election, but late last fall the only candidate thought capable of beating him was popular Cincinnati city council member Todd Portune.
Democratic leadership wanted Portune to run so much that Congressional Minority Leader Richard Gephardt called him personally to persuade him to run, but to no avail.
The Democratic leadership then believed that the district would not change hands in 2000.
But things started to change with the discovery of Cranley's youthful enthusiasm and charisma.
"At first no one had any expectations of me, and the Democrats had basically conceded the District. But our people have been fighting like the dickens for attention and funding, and they've done a phenomenal job," Cranley said. "No one sat me down and told me so, but the understanding is that if I raised $100,000 by April 1st, then I would start getting serious attention."
Another factor working in Cranley's favor is that he grew up in the western suburbs, which is the center of Chabot's power base. In fact, Qualls' loss in 1998 has been attributed to her failure to carry this part of the city. She carried 64 percent of the votes from the city, but only carried 34 percent of votes from the suburbs.
This area, which is predominantly Catholic, is very supportive of Chabot's strong pro-life stance.
Cranley, however, is Catholic and pro-life as well, which may be key is his insurgent quest for this seat.
" John Cranley is a progressive Democrat, and the fact that he's pro-life will appeal to a larger cross-section of voters," said Massachusetts Young Democrats President and Kennedy School of Government graduate Avi Green, who also is assisting in Cranley's campaign. "He's going to campaign everywhere; [he's] not going to cross off anything in his bid for the seat."
Cranley concedes it will be an uphill battle, as his incumbent opponent has amassed a large war chest--according to Cranley over $500,000--and was capable of easily fending off the past two Democratic challengers.
But Cranley has picked up a good deal of momentum in the past couple months.
"If I knew two months ago what I know now about this race, I might not have gotten involved at all," said Cranley. "But what has happened in the past two months has exceeded our wildest dreams."
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