Inside Politics with Family Man Jonathan Allison '93
Jonathan Allison '93 came to his spot at the top of Columbus' Capitol Square quite naturally. His family's love of politics, coupled with his law degree from the Moritz College of Law, was augmented by diverse employment experiences in and around Ohio. He has parlayed his unusual background into a fascinating job at the highest level of state government-chief of staff for Governor Bob Taft.
With his father acting as chairman of the Republican Party in Columbiana County, Jon grew up on the campaign trail. At a young age, he witnessed the political process in action, and found he was hooked. He worked canvassing door-to-door, stuffed envelopes. Even in this primarily Democratic county in eastern Ohio, Jon didn't find talking to voters difficult-he found it challenging and inspiring.
In these early experiences, Jon discovered it was the soft sell that works in one-on-one contact. The broadcast media could deliver lots of hard-sell message in sound bites, but going door-to-door offered the public a real chance to learn, to read a piece of literature, and perhaps even ask a few questions about the candidate. Not only was this "grunt work" good training for a young person, it also primed Jon for his future career on Capitol Square.
Following in his father's footsteps again, Jon attended Maryville College in Maryville, TN, near Knoxville and the Great Smoky Mountains. Both his father and brother had worked their way through school at this Presbyterian-founded liberal arts college. His dad became a lawyer, and was active in the Ohio State Bar Association as well as continuing to be involved in politics. Influenced by his activism, but never pressured by it, Jon headed for law school as well. He returned to Ohio, saying that Ohio State was a "natural choice." The same work ethic instilled in him as a youngster applied in law school too, with Jon working 20-30 hours per week, including a position at the City Attorney's Office and clerking for the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals.
He didn't let go of his interest in politics either. In 1992 as a 3L, he took a semester off to be the campaign manager for a Republican candidate running for the Ohio House of Representatives. The candidate was a challenger in the race to represent Cuyahoga County, and an underdog up against a 20-year incumbent Democrat. Redistricting had changed the landscape in his candidate's favor, but it wasn't enough for a win. Jon remembers, "It was 1992, a bad year for Republicans. President Clinton had won in Cuyahoga handily." What did it mean to lose after all of his hard work? He says, "You gain respect for the party that wins, for the political history of the state-which always influences the outcome, and for competition. It was definitely a worthwhile experience." He made many contacts-gaining a head start for his career in politics to come.
Being on the "losing side" of several campaigns has given him insight into the trends that make changes in officeholders possible. The economy is always a factor when the public seeks to replace them, but emotion also comes into play. "If a person is in office for too long, they can become arrogant," says Jon. "The media writes about it, and the public begins to perceive that the officeholder is careless or sloppy."
So, how do politicians manage the media, in order to influence public opinion? "It's a matter of getting out the message," Jon asserts. "You need to pick your times. The policy must be substantive, and you need to have a plan for delivering it, as well as the funds to support it. Beyond responses to criticism over this or that issue, it's crucial to have sound ideas and to communicate them consistently and continually. It's the only way to educate the public."
When asked about his job experiences, Jon jokes, "Your readers will think that I can't hold down a job!" Like many Gen Xers, he has wended his way through the job market, solving problems for his employers while gaining valuable skills along the way. After a brief stint as an assistant city prosecutor in Columbus, he rejoined the political world as a lobbyist for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. He caught the attention of then-Secretary of State Taft, joining his team as legislative counsel and communications director, then serving as director and legal counsel for Taft's transition office after his election to governor. Using IT experience gained as communications director and from a position at the Ohio Department of Commerce, Jon jumped into the dot.com fray with eGovNet, which marketed online government services, such as renewing licenses, to state governments. His last initiative was to start his own lobbying firm. Barely nine months in, he chose to answer another call from Governor Taft, this time as deputy chief of staff, running legislative operations and managing the DC offices. In August 2003, he was promoted to chief of staff.
While he brings to the table a wide variety of experience-in management, politics, communication, technology and, of course, the law-he still relies on his highly-motivated executive staff team, drawing on the strengths that they bring to the table. It's tough to recruit those staff members, though, on government salaries. They know that in the next election, their employment will likely be terminated. Still, Jon says with pride, "people stay on, even in this, our last term. It's at the center of the excitement. The aura, the responsibility has drawn them away from their private sector salaries."
He likens his job as chief of staff to Ohio's top official to that of a firefighter-he's always on call. Being prepared to help the governor with anything and everything that faces the state of Ohio means that no day is ever typical. Daily duties run the gamut from working with the legislature on moving the administration's agenda forward, to handling the electric power crisis after the blackout last August, to providing disaster relief packages to communities after a flood or tornado. His hours are similar to those of a new associate in a firm. Yet, he still tries to see his two children, Ben (7) and Kate (4), in the evenings, before turning to his briefcase again. He is grateful to his wife, fellow 1993 Moritz alumna Kim Gibson Allison, a former administrative judge at the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals, who is now full-time caregiver for the family.
At the end of the day, it's about the relationship with and the respect he has for his supervisor. Jon describes Bob Taft as honest, sincere, and focused-both as a person and a politician. He says, "It would be difficult to find a boss who tries harder to sort through the forest of issues to find the best result." The administration has taken a lot of hits from the media, but the work continues. The hits are frustrating, of course, especially when the media negatively characterizes the administration's relationship with the legislature: they "overblow" what Jon says is a "natural tension." As an example, he mentions the two-year budget passed in 2003, during the worst fiscal climate since WWII-all accomplished without interim budgets or massive closures. Sustaining funding and maintaining stability was the result, which is key for business to move to Ohio, or expand their presence here, he notes.
Even in the dog-eat-dog world of politics, Jon's pride in his work and confidence in his governor is obvious. "We have well-developed ideas, especially regarding the economy and education. We have three years left to do it. If we do it right, the popularity will come along."
In the meantime, like many recent alumni from the Moritz College who have young children, his life is very full. "Right now," he says, "it's just work and the kids. I take them to sports, to events. Sometimes it's difficult to let go of work-the projects are just so big and so challenging. Like everyone else, I'm always looking for the balance." One thing is for sure: his choice to continue in his father's footsteps will have allowed him to make history.
To get in touch with Jon, email him at email@example.com.