Kleinhans is putting what he learned to use in a different arena

It would be presumptuous to suggest that John Kleinhans will be the president one day. Maybe not so much, though, to think that he'll be the guy advising the president. Or running the campaign.

Who knew?

This is the self-proclaimed "quiet kid at the end of the bench" not so long ago at East Lyme High, who used to get water for the other basketball players?

He's quite a story. Many of the politicians for whom he's worked probably have articles of clothing older than he is (23). And yet Politics Daily has already named him one of the top five political rising stars under 25 in America.

Kleinhans' resume has inflated like a passenger's side air bag since graduating from East Lyme High in 2008 and Lyndon State College in Vermont: Member of the Vermont State College Board of Trustees, Student Body President before graduating from Lyndon, National Regional Vice Chairman of the College Republican National Committee, Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Leadership Coalition.

He just ran East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica's campaign for congress.

At 23.

And to think it all began because he was bored.

"We're 22 miles from the Canadian border in a school of 1,400 kids," Kleinhans said. "So I called my dad (Bob, East Lyme's former deputy first selectman and Vernon's former deputy mayor), who has always been involved in politics. He said to call the local state legislator."

So Kleinhans called state representative Howard Crawford.

And a star was born.

"I called him," Kleinhans was saying recently over dinner at Flanders Fish Market. "He said, 'you want to help out a Republican and you go to college?' We met a half hour later. Next thing I know, I'm driving his Mercedes door to door in the backwoods of Vermont. Then I'm running his campaign."

Kleinhans later took the College Republicans from five members to 150 in Vermont and was becoming a national name. It wasn't long after he graduated that Formica called him.

"I graduated May 13 (2012). Paul called and said, 'I think I'm going to run for Congress. I said, 'you're absolutely insane.' He said 'You owe me one for taking Hannah to the prom in 2006. You should come home and run my campaign.' And then I moved home."

East Lyme High should be proud of him. There is a line that runs like a current between what his teachers and coaches taught him and how he's applied it to real life. Just as it's drawn up.

"I moved to East Lyme in 2006 as a junior. I went out for basketball and I didn't play much," Kleinhans said. "But the leadership qualities coach (Dan) Spellman taught us were tremendous.

"He told us that what you do on the bench and leadership you show helps out in other ways," he said. "As a senior, I was getting water for the other kids. That was my role. I learned that it doesn't matter if you're the best player, if you contribute in your way, the team will be better."

Imagine: a 23-year-old smart enough to find a link between fetching water and running a political campaign.

"None of our interns got paid and they all worked 25-30 hours a week," he said. "But they all contributed in their own way, just as I learned at East Lyme. Everyone has a way to contribute. You just have to bring them all together. No one quit. That's so cool. Now we have three kids running for student government from Paul's campaign."

Kleinhans was also in the background cheering the school newspaper's recent foray with "grinding" at school dances. It was nothing more complicated than a political debate: pick a side of an issue and roll up your sleeves.

"That staff is just dynamite," Kleinhans said. "(Editor-in-chief) Kaley Roberts was our head videographer and film person (on the campaign) she's just great. It just reinforces what a great school it is. (Newspaper advisor) Jeff Beale taught me a lot there. So did (teachers) Rose Ann Hardy and Grant Place."

Kleinhans said he has no aspirations to be a career politician, instead inspired by Formica, who has built the Fish Market into an institution.

"I think I'm a different kind of Republican. Most younger people are," he said. "It concerns me what the party is doing. I think compromise is a good word. Socially, I am much more liberal than most Republicans. But I believe in opportunity and the American Dream.

"Socially, I don't agree with most anything the Republicans are talking about," Kleinhans said. "The message on college campuses is that we need a new wave of Republicanism. We don't have to be so socially conservative, but talk about opportunity and job growth and how there's no limit on how high you can go. You determine your own destiny."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.


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