I’m so pleased to share this beautiful Ellensburg sky and this wonderful day with all of you.
As I look out on this sea of happy faces on this joyous occasion, this promise-filled beginning – remember that “commencement” means “beginning” – I’m sensing some worry.
My daughter A.J. graduated from Central last year. Some of you know her. And she tells me you’re worried.
You’re concerned about the money your parents spent and the debt you’ve taken on to finance your education. You’re wondering whether the four, five, or however many years you’ve spent getting to this day will turn out to be worth it. You’re worried that you won’t get a good job, that you’ll wind up living in your parents’ basement. You’re worried about a safe route in an uncertain world.
Well, I’m here to tell you that you’ve got it backwards. You should be thinking about which risks you’re going to take. What smart gambles you need to accomplish your goals. And most of all, you should be thinking about the big goals that live in your heart.
When I first showed up here in 1965, a 123-pound freshman who came to wrestle for Central and beat up on the U-Dub -- my only goals were athletic. I had a high-school letterman’s jacket loaded up with hardware and I was looking for a college jacket to match and then a career as an athlete or a coach. I was the first member of my family to go to college.
Then the United States government sent me to Vietnam. I was 22, a greenhorn Navy medic and my job was to keep Marines alive in one of the hottest combat zones in the country, near enemy territory in North Vietnam. And shortly after I arrived, I got a moment of total clarity -- the lesson that focused me for life.
Heat north of 100 degrees was the norm there, with matching humidity, and our troops were regularly keeling over with heat stroke. So one day the order came down to my unit that we were to take off our life-saving body armor and helmets, the thin line of defense between men and bullets and shrapnel. I guess somebody somewhere figured that on that day the heat was a more deadly enemy than the actual enemy.
That somebody was wrong, and I spent most of that day trying to keep my Marines from dying from the chest and head wounds they took. And I was damn lucky to be alive too. By the end of the day, I had a backpack full of shrapnel, and there were five holes through my jungle hat. I survived the incoming mortar by jumping in a fox hole. Talk about a close call.
I was convinced I didn’t have much chance of making it through the next 11 months of my tour, and it was a valid concern, because in the end 11 out of the 13 medics in my company were killed or wounded.
And, so at that moment on that hot, bloody hill, I made a promise to myself on that fateful day.
I told myself that I would make a difference. I made a commitment to elect the best politicians to office in this country -- because these are the people who make the decisions that affect all of our lives - from the ordinary to the life and death ones. And that’s how I decided to go into politics.
And the lessons of Vietnam have served me well. What I learned was that in order to stay alive, you have to fully focus, you have to calculate every step, every little decision. So, I thought through each and every move I made and I approached my job differently from any other medic.
First I chose to walk point – to be the scout at the front of the pack – rather than the medical guy bringing up the rear. And, I chose to dress like a marine and carry an M-16 and a machete. And I became really good at spotting booby traps and land mines, and developed a sixth sense for knowing when an attack was coming. Because I figured it was much better to avoid trouble up front than to patch up wounded men later.
Today, this is what I call strategic thinking and it’s what I learned to apply in college here at Central, and later in politics and business.
After I returned from Vietnam, I enrolled at the University of Washington, but as a combat veteran still shook up from exploding grenades, I found that UW made me claustrophobic. So I came back here to the wide open spaces in Ellensburg, where I could breathe.
I did not come from a political dynasty or a family involved in politics. I didn’t even know how to spell politics in high school. But Vietnam taught me mental discipline and focus, so I took advantage of everything this campus had to offer. I immediately immersed myself in the political science department, where I became president of the Political Science Association, and was named student of the year. As a senior at CWU, I also produced a TV show called “Politics and Personalities,” where we interviewed Washington’s politicians and leaders. By the time I left, politicians running for office made it a point to come on our show when they passed through Central Washington. One guy who refused us was a Republican running for Attorney General named Slade Gorton. Remember that name because we’ll get back to him later. Among the people who did come on the show was Clark County auditor Don Bonker, who offered me a job helping in his statewide run for Secretary of State after I graduated.
And, so a door opened, but one I had never considered. I barely knew the way to Vancouver, Washington, and my other options were far safer: I’d already been accepted to graduate school at Ohio State and I had been offered a sweet paid internship with the State of Washington’s budget office.
I had no experience in politics or campaigning, but I walked through the door and I took the road less certain.
I rolled the dice, and Don Bonker lost the race. I never got paid the $250 a month I’d been promised for my work on the campaign – but I gained tremendous experience. And that gamble led to another door when Bonker offered me a job as his Chief Deputy in the Clark County Auditor’s Office.
So then I had a steady job, but wouldn’t you know it, I took another risk, launching my own career in electoral politics. In 1974, I ran for Don Bonker’s job as county auditor when he ran for Congress, and at the same time, I ran his campaign. Running for office as a novice is rarely a sure thing, but I walked through that door and embraced the uncertainty. And guess what? We both won and I got 60 percent of the vote and defeated six better-known candidates. Then I built a successful record, cleaned up the county elections and accounting system, and then I did what ambitious young county auditors do: I ran for Secretary of State in 1980.
By then I thought I was pretty good at this campaign stuff. I spent my free time working on campaign tactics and messages, helping elect officials throughout Clark County including mayors, city council seats, county commissioners and state legislators. I was running a good campaign and I thought I might win.
During that time, I ran into one of the lions of Washington politics, U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. And he put his arm around me and said: “Ron, I’ve been watching you. You’ve run a hell of a race. The only way you’re going to lose is if it’s a Ronald Reagan landslide.”
Those of you who studied history may remember this: Reagan won all but six states in 1980. So that year the voters of Washington changed my path by not electing me. And if I had won that race, I would likely have traveled a very different road.
And while no one likes to lose and many view it as a big setback, a lot of the time, losing leads to possibilities that you’ve never considered.
That was the case for me. In 1982, I got a call from Senator Jackson, who said, Ron, it’s time to come home to Everett and help run my re-election campaign. I could have stayed with my safe job as auditor – probably a choice that most people would make. Instead, I rolled the dice of electoral politics again and went to work on Scoop Jackson’s re-election campaign. He won easily and that led to another door opening and the toughest political task of my career - running the Democratic campaign of an unknown, untested candidate for governor against a Republican incumbent in 1984, at the height of Reagan’s popularity.
Once again, many would have said this was not the smartest decision. After all, I’d been offered a stable, high-paying job with a huge national bank and I had a young family. My candidate was the Pierce County executive, a guy named Booth Gardner. Now when Booth passed away a couple of months ago, his obituary was front-page news and thousands of people came to his memorial. But back then, people used to ask “Booth Who?”
The story of that campaign was told in a book about Booth, but long story short: Even though Ronald Reagan carried 49 states, including Washington in 1984, his coattails weren’t big enough for governor. So Booth Gardner served two terms as Washington’s 19th governor and became one of the state’s most popular governors.
That campaign made me a big name in politics because 1984 was a very bad year for Democrats. I was in demand. But I could feel a breeze blowing me in a new direction. Just as many of you are done taking courses, writing papers and passing tests, I was done getting people elected. I was ready to strike out again and build something new.
So, I took another risk and created my own door and walked through it. I started Northwest Strategies, a company designed to use what I’d learned in campaigns to help change things, create jobs, and make Washington a better place. I’m sure many of you share those goals. Over the next 15 years, I built one of the biggest and most successful public affairs groups in Washington state.
The company did very well, but I wasn’t satisfied with just that success. So I did things like sneak past the old Iron Curtain to teach the basics of campaigning to people in Latvia. Before the old Soviet Union collapsed, this was dangerous, and people asked me why I took the risk. I told them the story of my hill in Vietnam and tried to show them that calculated risks can have great rewards.
And then came the year 2000. By then we had a long-serving Republican representing Washington in the U.S. Senate – a fellow by the name of Slade Gorton. Remember him? He was the guy who said no to coming on our TV show at Central.
Washington was becoming more Democratic, and a good many people were tired of Slade Gorton – including the tribal leaders I was working with and a certain high-tech executive named Maria Cantwell.
I had a growing business. Maria Cantwell was rich and successful. People called us crazy to take on a powerful and entrenched incumbent like Gorton. They told us all we’d do was blow a bunch of money on a losing campaign and make a load of enemies in the process. But we walked through that great unknown door anyway. And Senator Cantwell is our nation’s capitol fighting for Washington on many issues as I speak. As for the enemies, well [SHRUGS AND SMILES] … they all lined up at my door after the election.
So here I was, 16 years past my last campaign, and I was suddenly hot again as the only political strategist to win two U.S. senate races and a governor’s race. I’d accomplished what I set out to do in politics and went back to my company to build it bigger and better, it into something lasting and important that would have an impact in our state and beyond.
Today that company is Strategies 360. In 2008, we had 12 employees and two offices in Washington state. Today, even after the recession of the past few years, we have 70 employees in 14 offices in 10 Western states and the other Washington. We are working around the world and in the U.S. on projects dealing with energy, health care, the environment, technology, and manufacturing jobs. Right now we’ve helping reopen a shuttered plywood mill up in Omak that will put hundreds of people back to work, and we’re proud to work with the world’s largest non-profit organization, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Did I imagine that I would run such a company when I came to Central all those years ago? Of course not, but because I took risks, because I stepped up to those doors and walked through them, I’m doing EXACTLY what I want to be doing today.
Which brings us back to you and your worries. Let’s have a few shows of hands here:
How many of you are the first in your families to go to college?
You’ve already done something you and your families will be proud of for the rest of your life. Go forth, make them prouder.
How many of you are veterans?
You made it through the fire and you’re on the way to the life you promised yourself on YOUR hill, just as I did.
How many of you have good jobs lined up, or a spot in grad school or a professional school?
Congratulations. But remember that security and a steady paycheck can distract you from the real opportunity that may be sitting in front of you.
Now, how many of you don’t have jobs? Don’t really know what you’ll be doing next?
Within all of you is the talent and the drive for the thing that you were meant to do. What these years at Central have given you is the tools to make the most of that talent, the keys to open your own doors, and create your own opportunities. Where’s your door? Well that’s the fun part. You have to find it yourself.
Thank you and congratulations.
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