Recently Casey Lucius, a 1997 graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar Program, learned what it felt like to challenge Goliath. Lucius ran in 2016 as the Republican candidate for the open seat in her left-leaning Central Coast, California Congressional district. A PhD and professor of national security affairs, a veteran of the Navy intelligence service, a city council member, and public servant on a wide range of local and regional governing boards, she believed herself better prepared for Congress than her opponent, Democrat Jimmy Panetta.
Panetta was a local deputy prosecutor; as a reserve officer in Naval intelligence, he had served a tour in Afghanistan. But locals knew him as the son of former Congressman and Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. Despite Lucius’ strong message and performance in campaign debates, Panetta won by a large margin.
Lucius grew up in Brewster, Ohio in a working-class family. Her mother, a secretary, often held two jobs, while her stepfather worked at the Timken Bearings plant in Canton. But Lucius was no ordinary kid. She enjoyed TV news and began watching political debates on C-SPAN when she was nine years old. She planned to go to college and from there into politics.
Lucius’ stepfather enabled her education at Ashland University by cashing out his retirement fund. She didn’t plan to waste his gift. As a freshman she learned of the Ashbrook Scholars: the students professors expected to excel in class and lead campus organizations. So Lucius asked to join the program.
“Peter Schramm (then Ashbrook Director) made me prove myself. I worked hard my freshman year and was accepted into the program as a sophomore.” Taking a heavy course load so as to graduate in three years and minimize costs, she had just two years to make the most of her Ashbrook experience.
“I always knew that I was going to do big things. The Ashbrook program provided a pathway to get from my vision of myself to reality.” Ashbrook helped Lucius make her first trip to Washington as a summer intern at the National Association of Manufacturers. By then her studies had persuaded her that free market economics were best for the economy and for working families like her own.
Ashbrook also helped Lucius to her first job after college, as a legislative aide in the Ohio House of Representatives. Then Lucius joined the Navy, attracted by the opportunity to travel and continue learning. Assigned to Naval intelligence, she discovered her fascination with national security policy. The Navy sent her to earn a Masters at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, and she used the GI Bill to get a PhD in political science at the University of Hawaii. She researched her dissertation while stationed in Vietnam and serving as chief of staff to the American ambassador. Attending the ambassador’s meetings with Vietnamese officials allowed her to observe the Vietnamese regime’s policy choices, and she authored a study of political decision-making that was later published as a book.
Invited to teach national security affairs at a branch of the Naval War College at NPS, she implemented a teaching technique she’d experienced as an Ashbrook Scholar. “We read Machiavelli’s The Prince with Professor Sikkenga. Before the first class period he assigned a short section of the book, telling us to read it three times.” Lucius did not take the instruction seriously; she read the passage once. When Sikkenga opened class with a question on the assigned reading, “I couldn’t answer it. I began to understand—by the third or fourth time you read a passage, you actually start to understand what’s there. So as a professor at the Naval War College, I assigned short passages and asked the students to read them three or four times.”
Lucius and her husband bought a home in Pacific Grove and had a child. Then she grew interested in local government. Serving on the city council, the natural resources and traffic safety boards, and the regional water authority and Fort Ord Reuse Authority boards, she studied the critical issues of the Central Coast: its lack of affordable housing, its limited water supply, the importance of immigrant labor to its agricultural and tourist industries. She learned “that you cannot pass any ordinance on your own; you have to work with others.” Yet while working in the local nitty-gritty, “I found myself thinking about ISIS and Syria more than about what color we should paint the library.” So she announced her candidacy for Congress.
Lucius viewed the race as a test of “whether the American dream is still alive—whether a poor girl from Ohio without a famous name could actually win elective office. I knew the issues; I did everything I could to educate myself. But I was overcome by a name and money.” She scoured her contacts to raise $425,000 in campaign funds; Panetta raised $1.3 million. “That’s our political system today—and I don’t think that’s what the Founders intended.”
She doesn’t blame her loss on voters’ civic indifference. After a poll she ran one month before the general election showed that, despite news coverage, TV ads, campaign signs, and volunteers making rounds, “30% of district voters had never heard of me,” she concluded that, “It’s not a lack of desire to know. People are just so busy managing their lives.
“They are working, and after work they take their kids to sports, or make dinner, help with homework, and give baths. After the kids are in bed, they’re doing laundry and dishes. By the time a mom sits down to take a breath and turn on the TV, she may not watch the news.”
She acknowledges that voters may have felt Panetta’s connections to national-level power brokers mattered more than her own knowledge and intellect. “I think there are probably one or two issues people get worked up about. It’s probably not Russia or ISIS. It’s probably the cost of housing or health insurance—or wages.”
Outside of California, Republicans made great gains in the recent election, giving them “a great opportunity to pass legislation that will benefit the American people, strengthen our economy, and renew our credibility in the world. Yet I’m afraid we’re going to blow it by not collaborating with the other party.” Lucius had told voters that she wanted to work across party lines. Noting resentment on the right when Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010 without any Republican votes, she worries that the act will “now be repealed by Republicans in the same way.” Representative government can reach lasting solutions only through compromise, she feels.
Lucius also worries about “a national anxiety” fed by perceived threats to the American way of life: our changing economy, terrorist attacks, Russian hacking, and an increasingly acrimonious political divide. “All of that breeds a lack of confidence in our political system. You can deal with the problems individually—ISIS or China or North Korea or Iran—but when the people lack confidence that representative government can meet challenges, that weakens our ability to respond to any crisis, international or domestic.”
Lucius is now applying for public and private sector jobs related to national security. She is willing to go to Washington to work behind the scenes.