Get Right with Lenny
Lenny McAllister is a walking paradox. He's African American and a conservative Republican. He speaks out on parental values but doesn't have custody of his own kids. But politically he just might be in the right place at the right time
Written by Melissa Hankins
Photograph by Chris Edwards
Davidson's Lenny McAllister's conservative politics have helped put him at the center of a gathering political storm, as the Republican party attempts to remake itself. A national GOP leader calls him "a rising leader."
Lenny McAllister left college as a sophomore in 1992, and, years later, he couldn't exactly say he regretted the decision. He'd done the things he had to do, and he was proud of many of them.
Still, he had this self-imposed title he couldn't shake.
He was a Davidson College Dropout, and the longer he held the label, the more he found it degrading, given his childhood, and his children, and also in light of that list: that growing list of certain former classmates' postgraduation achievements.
McAllister decided to lose the label in 2000. He was twenty-eight years old, the father of two, and a husband, and he went back to college, working at the post office on campus to pay for it all.
But living in Davidson again, the pressure of playing catch-up chased him, because everywhere McAllister looked, he saw signs of alumni successes.
Like the ones dotting I-277, with Anthony Foxx's name stamped all over them.
Foxx had been a classmate of McAllister's, another young African American, and they had lived in the same freshman dorm. But Foxx's future never fell off course. He graduated Davidson, went on to law school, and now the signs stated he was running for City Council.
"I knew that knucklehead!" McAllister used to mutter, driving past the campaign posts. Foxx's name still creeps in to many of McAllister's conversations. Of course, a lot of people are talking about Foxx right now, because he's running for mayor. McAllister wears a kind of bemused envy of that fact on his sleeve, along with his own political aspirations. And that old label, it's still pinned to him, too: he still talks about his delay in graduating Davidson.
But these days, thirty-seven-year-old McAllister is also giving himself a new description, that of political commentator. And it is time, he thinks, to finally catch up with his future.
It is the election of Barack Obama that makes this year so special for McAllister. He didn't vote for the first black president—McAllister is a conservative Republican—but that is not stopping him from using the election, because, he says, there is no ignoring the implications for the people of his race. "Now," he says, flashing his puckish grin, "you can go from scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins to being president of the United States."
And he can go from a Davidson College Dropout to an increasingly popular public speaker. McAllister has caught the admiration of Republican bigwigs, even the eye of new GOP Chair Michael Steele, who is plainly trying to trap and reflect Obama's political success in black Republicans who can in turn attract young voters. It so happens that McAllister has been working for years to turn on black teens to conservatism, and at just the right time, he's stepping up his efforts.
McAllister has been volunteering to counsel troubled kids for more than a decade through a laundry list of local programs. He speaks to high school dropouts, and teen parents, and kids who've committed crimes, to show how adopting conservative values can get them, as he puts it, "back on track." Besides his steadfast Christian beliefs—McAllister describes himself as deeply spiritual—this is what pushes him to the right. He believes conservatism (from dressing properly to abstinence) can preserve a young person's potential, and maybe even their life. Suddenly, those efforts are fashionable in certain circles, which can't hurt his impending political career.
An independent business consultant, McAllister also has slowly been building a presence on local television and radio, appearing each week on shows like Fox News Rising, and working on a wider audience via the Internet. McAllister makes conservatism cool on blogs like The Root, Hip Hop Republican, and media mogul Russell Simmons's popular site globalgrind.com .
It was during Obama's final push for president that McAllister really took off. At the 2008 Republican National Convention, he was interviewed on CNN, BET, and BBC World News. He landed a spot on the digital-cable network ABC News NOW, sparring with Sam Donaldson just before John McCain's acceptance speech. A day later he chatted with FOX News's Shepard Smith on a live webcast.
He is focused on "reeducating" African American youth, he says. He wants to keep other black kids from falling into the same tired pitfalls that slowed his own career, and maybe that is why his passion seems to come from a deep, personal place. McAllister eschews political correctness, blatantly casts it off, which others say helps him relate to young people. "Lenny is the face of change. He's a breath of fresh air," says Mecklenburg County Young Republicans Vice Chair Kristin Stakel. "He doesn't talk down to young people. He breaks stereotypes, and he's going to break the Republican Party's."
"I would call Lenny a rising leader," says the RNC's Angela Sailor, director of coalitions.
A few months ago, McAllister really won her respect, and Steele's too, with a creation he called the "Festive 40-Day Fast for the Future." McAllister describes it on his Web site (lennymcallister.com) as "a celebratory call for change considering the magnitude of the early part of 2009 … the first days with the first African American president."
To an ear untrained in McAllister's politics and the Republican Party's new goals, the fast can sound strange, because it sweepingly (and temporarily) asked all African Americans to give up crime, black-on-black violence and murder, truancy, and using the terms "bitches," "niggaz," "jiggas," and "hoes."
"This is a unique opportunity to address the ills found in Black America," McAllister's Web site says of the fast, "to bring about a new reality for Black people—and all citizens—in 21st Century America."
The RNC liked the idea so much that it invited McAllister to come out to Los Angeles to discuss his idea at a huge annual event hosted by Tavis Smiley called the State of the Black Union. McAllister rubbed elbows with the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and, of course, Steele. He says he's not worried that his plan will only perpetuate stereotypes. "Look. We have to be honest," he says. "The truth is uncomfortable. We can sit there and pretend like this doesn't exist, or we can deal with it. Be uncomfortable and move on. We're in a situation where black America is in crisis."
And so, some say, is the Republican Party, which is why after meeting McAllister out in L.A., Steele invited him to Washington. McAllister went at the end of March, one of sixty Steele invited to devise a strategy for recruiting young voters. Steele, who recently told The Washington Times he's planning an "off the hook" public-relations initiative to attract the kinds of voters the GOP is missing, said to the group, "Look, if you are in this meeting, your state needs to know who you are. Because you are one of the national leaders that will rebuild the Republican party."
McAllister mentioned his recent high-profile hobnobbing one night in March at Davidson College's Black Student Coalition. The thirty or so kids he spoke to were pristine and polite, dressed in button-downs and pearls, and they dined on pasta shipped up twenty-five miles from one of Charlotte's yuppie favorites, Mama Ricotta's. Watching them sit so straight-backed in a room full of mismatched sofas and folding chairs, it would be hard to imagine anyone in this group casually uttering words like "niggaz" or "hoes," and if these students were truants, they wouldn't be here at Davidson. It's probably safe to say they don't need a forty-day break from crime either, yet McAllister says it's important to speak to them, too, because as young black Americans, they could slip off the path as easily as he did.
BSC President Tiara Henderson introduced McAllister as "a very popular young conservative, which is rare for this country," and a man who "loved Davidson so much he did it twice."
"That's a nice way of saying don't drop out," McAllister greeted them, grinning. "Each one of you has a brick in your hand," he told the students. "You can throw it through a window or lay it down to build a path."
McAllister's passion for speaking to kids is palpable, and at his home base of the BSC house, he quickly got on a roll, a preacher's lilt just starting to creep into his voice, when one student raised his hand and told McAllister he couldn't understand him. McAllister stopped and laughed. "I guess when you start hanging out with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, you just start spitting this stuff out."
McAllister briefly listed the "social issues" that dragged him away from school for so many years. "I had a child at twenty-one," he told the crowd. "I had to care for my dying mother. I was involved [as a volunteer advocate in the aftermath of] a high-profile police brutality case … my father was accosted in a robbery." He paused. No one asked him to elaborate. He moved on. "Before I knew it, it was 2000, and every May it got under my skin, seeing former classmates getting interviewed on TV."
But if you ask him, he will elaborate. Fatherhood first pulled McAllister away, back to his hometown of Pittsburgh. "I loved being a dad from day one," he says. "I cut the umbilical cord, I named her, and so on." When he finally received his diploma in 2002, McAllister wanted his children (son Peace came along six years after Alicia) on stage with him, and he asked Davidson College President Bobby Vagt to give the degree to his daughter. "I told him that when I graduated, I would be walking with my daughter holding my right hand and my son in my left arm," McAllister says. "He was to give the degree to Alicia to symbolize the sacrifices I made in order for her to reach higher."
Today, McAllister's children live in Pittsburgh with their mother, and McAllister is fighting for custody. The battle over Alicia and Peace has been long and convoluted—the kids lived with him from 2001 to 2004—and it presents a paradox, because McAllister's platform is built on the importance of being unflinchingly present in the lives of our youth. McAllister says the situation is complicated and sensitive. But she does have custody. And that raises questions that McAllister does not care to answer publicly, out of concern, he says, about affecting the ongoing litigation over his children.
McAllister will say only that he thinks his problematic first marriage and custody dispute make him relatable to the troubled youth he's trying to reach. "I'm going through the same challenges everybody else is," he says. "My life isn't perfect. I'm still an African American male. I don't have a million dollars in my pocket. I'm fighting for my kids."
McAllister has been remarried for seven years to a woman named Lannie. The two are expecting a child of their own, news that thrills him, because he adores being a father.
McAllister learned the importance of the role from his own father. "Tell my dad you love him," he says, "and the man will change the subject." He laughs. "But he has a huge commitment to being a father."
Leonard McAllister spent much of his life working in a steel mill, and his demeanor, his son says, is not unlike the metal he makes. But McAllister says he inherited all of his values, his drive, from his namesake.
Growing up, Saturdays were spent on chores and trips to the library, where McAllister and his siblings each had to pick three books to read in six days. The subject of one had to be sports, another had to be African American studies, because Leonard McAllister thought his children could use both categories to become young community leaders. "From the beginning, my dad taught me I was a leader," McAllister says. "My mom almost died when I was born. The doctor told him to choose one, your wife or the baby. And he told the doctor, ‘Go save them both.' That was just my dad. But when he told me that story, again and again, he'd say, ‘You even had trials in utero. But you made it to do great things. You are a leader.' "
As a boy, leading the way in sports came easy to McAllister. Issues of race proved tougher. McAllister was the first black quarterback and first black pitcher in his small hometown of Penn Hills, outside Pittsburgh. He'll never forget standing on the mound one day as a ten-year-old, clutching a baseball in his little throwing hand, hearing hate spew from the stands. A father of a player on the opposing team yelled out, "We've gotta distract this nigger on the hill!"
His father got right up and confronted the man. " ‘I'm that nigger on the hill's father,' my dad said. ‘Now say it again.' They didn't expect a little black boy's father to be at that game. They didn't expect a little black boy's father to be in his life. My dad was wearing a suit and a beeper. They didn't expect that either. They were shocked."
His father put McAllister in the line of fire on baseball diamonds and football fields, and stood himself on the sidelines in a suit, to teach his son that he could become a stereotype or defy it. It was an effective and aggressive approach to parenting that simply doesn't exist anymore, McAllister says. "You have to teach children to lead and you have to prepare them for what they will encounter by being trendsetters."
Says McAllister's father: "Lenny had a happy youth, full of lessons and challenges. And when you have that, it puts an inner light in you that makes you shine even brighter. It's every parent's job to make their children have a better life than they had."
"That's why it's so important to go after this generation, right now. They're focused too much on sex and death," McAllister says. "They need a reeducation, of spirit, of mind, of body, of society. We can't stagnate our young people's growth any longer. They're going to be our future leaders."
And our future voters. You can see why the RNC is so interested in him.
McAllister works with young fathers to pass on the parenting skills he believes society's largely lacking, through projects like the Young Father's Program and My Brother's Keeper and speaking engagements at schools, shelters, and even jails. He recently spoke before a group of about a hundred at a detention center called Western Youth Facility in Morganton. "Ninety percent of them were black," he says. "It was the closest thing I've seen to what a slave ship must have looked like. Hundreds of black men shuffling along, shackled." But whether he speaks at a jail or a college, he says, it's all with one purpose. "I want to see a higher level of chivalry among African Americans, and respect, a return to conservative values. I want to see America in a better place and time."
McAllister also volunteers with troubled teens, to teach them the things, he says, their parents haven't. "Most importantly," he pauses, thinking. "The power of persistence." Persistence, because it's quite simply what those kids need, he says, in the face of all that plagues them. Even if a minority child is brought up right, he explains, he or she will still face challenges.
Just take a look at all that kept him away from Davidson. After initially dropping out because of daughter Alicia (having children too young and out of wedlock, McAllister says, is a major African American problem) and then having to care for his mother during a protracted illness (too many blacks, he points out, can't afford healthcare), it was an armed robbery of his father (a terrifying example of black-on-black violence) that continued to keep him out of college.
McAllister's father talked with him once about the possibility of violence reaching into their lives -- statistically, black men are more at risk, he said, than anybody. " ‘If someone ever pulls a gun on me, I'm going to fight them,' " Leonard told his son. "And I thought, ‘Yeah, right,' but it happened. Someone pulled a gun on him, he tried to wrestle it away, and he ended up in the hospital for eleven months." His father recovered from the gunshot wounds, but "your life changes when someone holds a gun to your head." In 2001, McAllister found that out for himself, during what he describes as a home invasion. "Someone followed me home. They knew who I was," he says, but he won't say anything else. "And when I had a gun up against my head, I grabbed it," he says. When McAllister took the gun, his attacker fled, and he called the police. "In the moment, I thought about my dad, and even though I never would have thought I'd fight, I did. When you're taught to respect your life, when you're taught to be a fighter, you end up not realizing the energy you have." No arrests have been made.
McAllister says the taste of violence in his family's life has given urgency to his message, and the threat of it still lingers. "I've gotten hate mail," he says. "People call me dangerous. Pick a slur against African Americans and it's been left on my voicemail."
Backlash like that could be the reason he lost his first election.
McAllister ran twice for a spot on the Davidson Town Council, in 2005 and 2007, and was defeated both times, and that fact is probably on his mind when asked about his current political ambitions. "About a year ago, I probably would have been inclined to give an answer that focused on specific legislative goals," McAllister says. But "a leader does not always have a title attached to his name, just as there are plenty of people with titles that don't know the first thing about leadership."
Others, though, like North Carolina Federation of Young Republicans past chair Kim Cotten, say they see big politics in his future. "He'll be a great congressman," Cotten gushes.
"Okay, I can see myself in elected office," McAllister says, "be it Town Hall, the Government Center in Charlotte, or beyond, but I don't dwell on it right now."
Mainly, he says, because the movement Steele is calling for hasn't quite found its legs yet in Charlotte. "I know that in today's political climate, some Republicans, especially some in Mecklenburg County, don't know what to make of a socially conscious, atypical young Republican," he says. "Not economically affluent, not from legacy, not free of life's bumps and bruises."
In fact, he says some of Charlotte's biggest problems won't be solved unless more politicians take his hands-on approach to urban issues.
Like the city's problem with crime, which starts, he says, with our abundance of wayward black youth. "They need to teach, feel, and experience the African American professional, the African American politician," he says. "We need politicians to go into their communities and grab their hands. Open stigmas, and show them the truth, show them how to overcome and become leaders. We need them to feel humanized and ‘Americanized,' because if they don't feel that, then they'll be institutionalized."
And our current African American leaders simply aren't doing enough of that hand holding, he says, enough grass-roots work to change the violent culture of our youth.
Cotton agrees. "If Lenny gets elected, he'll change the way problems are attacked. He'll go to the people and make them part of the solution," she says.
Anthony Foxx does not agree. He says our current politicians, himself included, are doing more than McAllister realizes.
"I've been following Lenny's career as someone interesting in politics," says Foxx. "He really brings a different approach that I think is fresh. But there are obviously many kids in Charlotte of many racial backgrounds that are doing well, and many of them are African American. And yes, there do need to be more conversations about reaching the ones that aren't, but people tend to argue about methods and means, and there's no silver bullet.
"If there's a perception there's nothing going on, that would be a false assumption," Foxx says. "I don't disagree with Lenny," he says, about the importance of reaching black youth, but says "it's just there are many different ways to do that. People convince themselves that they have the approach to solving a problem, but the reality is it's going to take a lot of different approaches. The thing to be criticized is doing nothing."
Says McAllister, quickly: Foxx "is the consummate politician." And then he adds, "Look, if you don't have politicians regularly, actively, and shamelessly talking to our youth, then we'll be talking rhetoric forever, and people will be wasting away. Right now, people [here] are wasting away."
It is that directness that McAllister says has caused him to become the victim of both "slurs and whisper campaigns" in Charlotte. He says some politicians here simply can't reconcile the fact that he's black, outspoken on racial issues, and Republican.
"I take it in stride though. I know that I am a trailblazer. Some trailblazers break social barriers before becoming respected and successful elected officials."
For now, McAllister says he will continue as political commentator. Then, if his campaign to reeducate black American youth continues to gain momentum, "the people of the region can decide if they want a man that represents and protects those pursuits to serve them," he says.
And if not -- there's always Washington.
Melissa Hankins is a Charlotte writer and a reporter for WBTV.