A self-proclaimed "political hack," Mike Willits credits his conservative chutzpah to an ice cream date with Dirk Kempthorne back in 1992. Since then, he has served as student body president of Idaho State University, state chairman of the College Republicans, chairman of the Idaho Young Republican Federation and organizer of a "YR scream-off" in honor of Howard Dean.
BW: How did you get your start in politics?
MW: My future wife and I founded an organization in high school called T.A.R.-Teenage Republicans. It's a terrible acronym.
Yeah-since when is teenage two words?
(Laughs) When Kempthorne was Mayor of Boise, he toured Eastern Idaho, and I arranged for him to stop at our high school and speak. We went to Me & Stan's in Rigby for ice cream, the two of us and Dirk. He was instrumental in encouraging us to be involved in politics. That's the fun thing about Idaho. I had ice cream with the future governor of the state-me, living in a single-wide in Menan.
Were you born Republican?
I'm a fifth-generation Idahoan, and my family has always had a strong sense of patriotic duty. My ancestor was the first senator from Idaho; my great-grandfather served two terms in the Idaho Legislature; and my grandpa ran as a Democrat for county assessor and lost to a Republican! So I guess you could say it's in my blood.
What is a "young" Republican?
Anyone 18-40 years old, though it tends to be the 25-35 crowd. We have about 500 members statewide, including young professionals, farmers and other folks. The demographic is pretty reflective of Idaho.
You know how some heterosexuals like to advertise that they have gay friends? Do you talk about your Democrat friends the same way?
(Laughs again) I depend on my Democrat friends to keep me on the straight and narrow. I like to understand both sides of an issue, and they challenge me to question how I really feel about things.
You mentioned that the new Republican Party has a "forward-thinking" vision, but I wouldn't describe your party's platform as progressive.
We're dealing with our issues progressively-education, Social Security reform, the governor's initiative on roads-all are "conservative" ideas, but we're looking toward the future with a plan to keep government small and out of the people's way so they can create their own future.
What about the Terry Schiavo debacle? Wouldn't you say the government "got in the way" on that one?
Terry Schiavo should have been a family decision. The government should be what the founding fathers intended-common defenders and promoters of general welfare. IYR wants to get more people involved and educated on such issues. My biggest advice is to pick what you're passionate about and go out and get involved. I don't care if it's young Democrats or young Republicans, make your voices heard, don't take no for an answer and don't be afraid of what you don't know.