Editor's note: This article first appeared at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
After November 2012, the Republican National Committee did a post-mortem. It was clear that the GOP needed to be more welcoming to younger voters, more diverse in its ranks, and more effective in articulating conservative principles to groups disaffected with the Democrats but still unwilling to go Republican.
Unfortunately, the top of the ticket this year (i.e., Donald Trump) fails in all those objectives. And yet, in an election year that has become a nightmare for conservatives, they have a choice here in Western Pennsylvania, smack in the middle of Pittsburgh.
Lenny McAllister is known to many in this area from his face and voice on PCNC and KDKA. Some might even recall the 44-year-old as the first African-American quarterback at the great Central Catholic high school, following Dan Marino and Marc Bulger, before going on to play baseball at Davidson College and spreading his wings in the Southeast and Chicago.
Now, this genuine change-agent (to borrow a term from the Obama/progressive playbook) is looking to enact real change, but not for the Democrats. McAllister is hoping to change the image, tone, and outlook of the Republican Party, starting in our own backyard, which would go a long way towards the RNC's 2012 "autopsy" goals. He is challenging Congressman Mike Doyle in Pennsylvania's 14th congressional district, a seat unchanged since the end of the Cold War.
It isn't hype to say that Lenny McAllister is a rising star in the conservative movement. CPAC jumped to get him on the big stage in February, and the annual Pennsylvania Leadership Conference did the same in April. They wanted him in Cleveland, too.
RNC organizers in Cleveland craved McAllister's message of "conservatism with inclusion and diversity," especially given Donald Trump's image. He was on an internal list of convention speakers, lining up to be the 2016 version of Congresswoman Mia Love (R-Utah), the African-American breakout star at the 2012 convention.
But it wasn't meant to be. McAllister is his own man. He became a single dad at 21, dropping out of college. He became a janitor at K-Mart, a deli clerk at Giant Eagle, and a data processor at Manpower to provide for his daughter before becoming a self-taught computer programmer and getting a full-time job at Mellon Bank. He married a girl equally resilient, a survivor of "gun violence" (a polite way to put it) and domestic abuse. He himself survived a horrific home invasion 15 years ago while returning to Davidson to finish his degree. And he became a caretaker after his father was shot and hospitalized for a year.
Again, he's his own man. But the Trump people in Cleveland wanted a parade of servile surrogates to prostrate themselves before the casino mogul. They wanted flatterers, an echo chamber of Chris Christie yes-men. Lenny McAllister was unwilling. In the end, he was bypassed by the Trump Train, despite enthusiastic support from the RNC and Pennsylvania GOP.
So now, McAllister is sticking to Pittsburgh and principles.
Among those principles, the pro-life Catholic is reaching beyond typical Republican constituencies. He describes himself as an "urban-focused Republican" who's "capable of building relationships" on the streets as well as affluent suburbs, both of where he knows the turf. He attended Shady Side Academy as a teen, and he has served as a youth minister to incarcerated males. He thinks the conservative vision works for both sides. It's a matter of communication.
"Most urban Americans feel that liberal policies and a lot of the conservative tone aren't working for them," McAllister told me, describing himself as "a bridge-builder, not a bomb-thrower."
The Penn Hills native says that "diversity does not mean being less conservative." In a Reaganesque style, he's looking to be a winsome and persuasive conservative capable of winning independent and center-left voters.
Will it work in November against Mike Doyle? We'll see. But in Lenny McAllister, conservatives have a choice, not an echo.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.