The roots of a young conservative in D.C.

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Rachel Bovard’s office sits in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, but even in that prestigious location, she displays remembrances of home: a framed postcard of the Eastman Kodak headquarters, a poster of Susan B. Anthony, and in one corner a wine rack—“I’m a huge advocate of Finger Lakes wines,” she says.

Peter Lovenheim

At just 35, Bovard has made a name for herself in the highest conservative political circles in Washington. She’s worked in both the House and Senate, including as legislative director for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky). She was director of policy services at the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, and currently is senior director for policy and programs at the Conservative Partnership Institute.

If all that sounds like just a lot of Washington jargon, the point is Bovard, in not much more than a decade, has become a leading strategist and voice of conservative thought in America. On network talk shows, she calmly presents the conservative viewpoint—often against outraged opposition from the left. The National Journal named her among the “25 most influential Washington women under age 35.”

Rachel Bovard

And yet, this period of intense political discord can be challenging, especially for conservative women. When profiled by Glamour magazine about the mood in Washington after the 2016 election, she lamented, “I’m sad about the world. I’m sad that we all hate each other this much.”

Recently, I met with Bovard at her office. We talked about her Rochester-area roots, her ideas for how to address some of Rochester’s most pressing issues, and what life is like in 2019 for a young conservative woman in D.C.

But first some background. 

Bovard, whose grandfather was pastor of two Presbyterian churches in Caledonia-Mumford, grew up in Dansville, the oldest of four children. After she graduated from Dansville Senior High, her family moved to Webster. Her father, David, was deputy chief of U.S. Probation and Parole in Monroe County. Her mother, Adele, at one time a music teacher, was superintendent of Dansville Central Schools, then superintendent of Webster Central Schools and later deputy superintendent for administration for the Rochester City School District.

In 2006, Bovard received her bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, in history and political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. She also holds a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

Her parents continue to live in Webster. Two of her brothers also live in Monroe County. 

While much of Bovard’s life in Washington is focused on politics, she makes time for other interests. A trained sommelier, she teaches a class on Finger Lakes wines at a local wine boutique. For exercise—and self-defense—she’s taken up Thai kickboxing (Muay Thai), which she practices in the early morning. And then there’s Chloe, the Terrier-Retriever mix she adopted from animal rescue. Bovard brings Chloe to Rochester often, especially in the summer, for hikes in North Ponds Park, Whiting Road Nature Preserve, and on the Hojack Trail in Webster. “No one loves upstate summers more than Chloe,” she says. 

Following is an edited version of my conversation with Bovard.

The framed Kodak postcard, the Susan B. poster, the Finger Lakes wine—despite the years in Washington, Rochester’s still important to you?

Rochester was pretty paramount in my existence because both my parents worked there and my siblings and I all did Eastman Band Camp. That’s a summer program for school kids. I played French horn. I did that every summer from 8thgrade through high school. We even performed at the Eastman Theatre.

Your office is just steps away from the Capitol. Right outside your window, we see the Library of Congress. At 35, does this ever feel like a dream?

Totally. Totally.  I’m blown away by the opportunities I’ve had. It goes back to the philosophy of conservatism, which is one of gratefulness, and I’m so grateful every day that I’ve had such an amazing experience.

It’s a long way from Dansville.

It is, for sure, and I reflect on that often. There’s not a ton of small-town kids up here, especially when I’ve worked on Capitol Hill. There’re a lot of Ivy Leaguers, a lot of private-school kids, a lot of kids who went to really rich high schools—none of which I went to. And I think that background gives me a different perspective but also a very significant awareness of my roots, and I like that. It’s also why I work hard to try to educate the next generation of conservatives here at CPI.

Was there anything particular about your family growing up that you can point to as the source of your political views?

No, not really. My first political awareness came with the Bill Clinton impeachment. I think I was 14. I was fascinated by it—which was funny because no one in my family is political. Politics was not discussed. But I devoured all the books about what was going on with Clinton and I remember my parents being confused by this. One day they asked me about it and I just spouted off a litany of all the players and I think they were just like, “Our child might be overexposed.” [laughs]

So the Clinton impeachment shaped your viewpoint?

No, I don’t think I developed any ideology out of that—it was just that I had a very robust interest in the process. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school when I did a project on the Arab-Israeli conflict and I think that was what sparked my interest. Then in college I was mentored by some history and political science professors who took a deep interest in me, and that’s when I began the study of the history of conservatism. 

In plain English, can you tell me what you do here at Conservative Partnership Institute?

CPI’s goal is to train, equip, and unify the conservative movement. For my part, I focus on the training. I teach conservative Capitol Hill staff about Senate procedure, House procedure, federal budget policy and process, and advanced tax policy and process. It’s tactical and field-focused: we teach how to get things across the finish line. 

So you’re teaching a lot of young people?

Yes, and we also work on strategy for the conservative movement generally—for example: best messaging strategy, best legislative strategy. Conservative groups can be more powerful when everyone’s singing off the same song sheet.

I’ve got to ask you about the Susan B. Anthony poster.  People think of her as a progressive figure and will wonder why a person with conservative views has a poster of her in her office? 
There’s nothing about Anthony that makes her “progressive” in the modern sense of the word i.e. liberal. Equality for women is a generally held value, despite the left’s attempts to own the issue. She’s in my office because she’s from Upstate New York and because she embodies courage, boldness, and the virtue of speaking truth to power—all qualities I want my own career to replicate. 

I don’t at all think of Anthony as owned by the right or by the left. Above all, she campaigned for women’s right to equal economic and political opportunity—a concept both the right and left support, though via different means. The left would rather mandate our participation through quotas and wage requirements. Conservatives support the rights of women to freely choose when, where and how much they work, and recognize that women make all kinds of diverse choices that the market should be flexible enough to support.

Anthony was also pro-life. A line from her temperance speech reads “the newspaper reports every day of every year of scandals and outrages, of wife murders and paramour shooting, of abortions and infanticides, are perpetual reminders of men’s incapacity to cope successfully with this monster evil of society.”

Let’s talk about Rochester and some of the issues it faces: education, poverty, and crime. Are there approaches to some of these problems you’d advocate from a conservative viewpoint?

Yes. Let’s take education. I’ve had my mom and now my brother very deep in the Rochester city schools, and I know there are a ton of problems: issues of race, union issues, bureaucracy issues. Throwing money at problems like these is not going to fix them. They need real structural change in how these schools are run, and those changes haven’t been made. In fact, we have people who are committed to notfixing them. In light of that, you need to allow families to have choice, and so I’m very pro-charter schools. 

And poverty?

Conservatives and liberals view these problems differently. Liberals are always saying look, all struggle needs to be legislated out of existence; the government should erase any of these issues. Conservatives say no, purpose and meaning in life come from overcoming obstacles. So to look at poverty in Rochester specifically, I think there’s a huge cultural problem. It goes back to the breakdown of the family, to the breakdown of the church—all these institutions that build up individuals and build up a community. 

My brother who teaches at Rochester International Academy works with refugee families—from Yemen, Somalia, Uganda—and we see they create their own community and are supportive of each other, and as a result their communities flourish. They have strong institutions of family and church and they hold each other accountable.

Has government contributed to these problems?

I think what we’ve created on a national scale is a culture of dependency—that we don’t have to fix our own problems. This welfare idea: I can stay on welfare forever and I never have to get off.  I don’t want to demean people who are doing that; that is a tough life. But the idea that it’s going to be forever and not that you aspire out of it is what’s missing. 

I don’t know how to overcome that, but I do know that the schools are a central hub for a lot of these kids and we have to get that right. Adults in the school system have to start caring about the kids first. I think my mom, if she were here, would say she ran into a culture where the adults—the administrators, the unions, the teachers—put their interests first rather than the kids.

Is there a conservative voice in Rochester addressing these issues?

Not that I’ve seen, which is interesting because parts of Rochester and upstate generally are very conservative. You find a conservative presence in a lot of the faith communities and as the demographics of Rochester change, you‘ll maybe start to see that become more prominent. But no, so far I haven’t seen a robust conservative presence out of Rochester. I pay attention to this because my dream was always to work for a member of Congress or a senator from my home district, but it never presented itself. There are Republicans but they’re not conservative. 

And you’re a Republican?

Yes, a registered Republican, but I’m a conservative.

This is a tough town to be a conservative in—something like 96 percent of D.C. residents vote Democrat. 

That’s right, and liberals are so busy preaching tolerance and inclusiveness that they’ll beat the crap out of you if you disagree.

This has been one of the most troubling things to me since Trump took office because I have lost dear friends over this. And it’s not because I’m pushing my views on them; it’s simply because I believe what I believe and they have deemed it so repugnant that they can’t even be around me. Politics and life have become so intertwined that you can’t have separate parts of your life anymore.

My youngest brother is now a socialist in the vein of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We actually enjoy talking politics. He’s quite thoughtful about these things, so we have a pretty informed dialogue about our points of view. We disagree about a lot, but he’s smart and a lot of fun to talk to about politics.

Why do you think people are so angry?

It’s complicated. These people have a political identity that is everything to them and nothing else defines them; it’s almost become a religion. For me, yes, I’m conservative, but I’m also a Catholic. I’m also a sommelier. I’m also a dog owner. 

Being conservative, people just assume you’re a horrible person and a racist, and being a person of faith—five years ago I became a practicing Catholic—has also become a problem for people. I’ve never experienced that before. It’s just this visceral reaction they have to Trump, and it’s spun out of control.

The left’s shift toward identity politics and their hostility—where they dehumanize the opposition because they determine we are morally wrong simply because they disagree with us—that I find dangerous. 

Let’s end on a positive note. Wegmans has had stores in Virginia and Maryland, but have you seen the news that they’ve broken ground for what will be the first store here in the District? 

I know; I’m very excited. It’s going to be awesome! I run into people who say, “Wegmans is from Virginia, right?” And I have to tell them, “No. Please don’t speak that blasphemy. Wegmans is from Rochester!”’  After all, I grew up on W-Pop.


Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author, is Washington Correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. You can reach Peter with comments or suggestions for his “Letter from Washington” at [email protected]

One thought on “The roots of a young conservative in D.C.

  1. “I think what we’ve created on a national scale is a culture of dependency—that we don’t have to fix our own problems. This welfare idea: I can stay on welfare forever and I never have to get off. I don’t want to demean people who are doing that; that is a tough life. But the idea that it’s going to be forever and not that you aspire out of it is what’s missing. ”

    There’s a lot there I don’t agree with, but I do confess it always reverberates negatively in my head when I hear people talk about how Albany needs to solve Rochester’s problems. And by “problems” I don’t mean the problems of the inner city (which are vast and horrible and which I’d support Albany changing, if it could), but rather something simpler, like the replacement of the old industries that were here and the restoration of the city to glory and recognition, rather than the butt of WSJ articles.

    I think Albany can and should play a role, but I fundamentally think the impetus has to come from Rochester. That doesn’t make me a conservative — I continue to argue that you can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps when you can’t even afford flip-flops much less boots. But it is this thing that Rochester seems to particularly be afflicted with, visions of “past glory” obscuring what the city is, what it offers, and what it’s becoming. Whether or not the Kodak glory days were glorious or not, they’re gone and it’s time for reinvention to something new, Rochester 3.0.

    I’d be very curious to hear Ms. Bovard’s take on what Rochester is already doing for itself and what additional it can do, all from the outlook of a professed conservative.

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