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Brandon McKenna: A freshman with an agenda

Monday, September 21, 2015

Freshman Brandon McKenna of Philadelphia came to Mercyhurst University with an agenda.

“I’ve been involved in politics since I was 12 and when I realized Mercyhurst didn’t have a chapter of College Republicans, I knew I had to start one,” said the 19-year-old intelligence studies major.

And so he did. He’s taken all the necessary steps to have a chapter of the College Republicans recognized among the university’s 80 clubs and organizations and is now heading up a membership drive. He already has several freshmen and two sophomores on the roster. He doesn’t think he’ll have trouble getting more.

Today’s young people, like much of the American electorate, are looking for alternatives to the status quo and to leadership by career politicians. Pundits say that is why political outsiders like Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson have gained so much traction.

Whether you agree with them or not, McKenna said, they are capturing America’s attention. CNN, in fact, pulled in about 23 million viewers Sept. 16  during the second Republican debate, essentially matching Fox News, whose debate last month, the first in the GOP primary race, earned 24 million viewers.

The buzz is big. If it’s not Trump, people are talking about Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and the e-mail controversy shadowing her campaign.

“I have students in my class talking about the different candidates,” said Beth Ann Sheldon, hospitality management program director at Mercyhurst North East. “Who talks politics in culinary arts class? It’s a first.”

McKenna said two students sitting in front of him in psychology class were discussing the debate the day after it aired, assessing the various candidates’ performances.

“Trump is bringing this sense of Reality TV to the debates and people are paying attention, not only to him, but to everyone on the platform,” McKenna said. “That’s a good thing.”

Through the College Republicans, McKenna hopes to create a channel whereby students can not only watch from the sidelines, but engage others in conversation about the issues and, ultimately, get involved.

For McKenna, it all began at the famous Mayfair Diner in northeast Philadelphia, where politicians, among them former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell dined and campaigned. McKenna was there in 2008 as a 12-year-old of Democratic persuasion passing out campaign literature for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, who went on to win in November of that year.

“I had ridden my bike to the diner to hand out fliers,” he said. “I didn’t get to meet Obama, but he saw me and waved. It was pretty cool.”

A lot has changed since McKenna’s foray into politics as a pre-teen. He went through a long spell as a Democratic supporter, interning with state Rep. Ed Neilson (D-Philadelphia) for a couple years and, then at 18, he worked for the Tom Wolf for Governor campaign as a field organizer for the Democratic party in northeast Philly, an area covering roughly 400,000 people.

But Wolf’s message wasn’t ringing true for him.

“I heard Wolf talking about tax increases, rather than looking for ways to cut spending, and I had an epiphany,” McKenna said. “I didn’t think his was the way government should be handling our economic problems.”

So, McKenna jumped ship abruptly and crossed over to the GOP in Philadelphia, where he started as the campaign manager for Tim Daly’s unsuccessful bid for state senate.

Next stop: Mercyhurst University.

Besides founding the College Republicans on campus in short order, he’s met with representatives of the Erie County Republican Party, for whom he quickly went to work, handing out literature at the recent Albion Fair. He’s also reached out to local GOP legislators and to the state GOP.

McKenna said service drives his interest in politics. “The public service aspect has always appealed to me,” he said. “I’ve prided myself on helping people out. Public service is just the best way to do it.”

It’s also important to support leaders who you feel will best serve your vision for America.

“For me personally, I’d like to see us have a country that is safe, nondependent on foreign entities, have great relationships with our allies and no burden on the middle class,” he said. “It would be nice if people no longer had to struggle to afford an education or fear an imminent terrorist attack. It would be nice to be strong.”