Cognitive dissonance is described as the very human ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in mind, and Chrys Kefalas, chief speechwriter for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and a potential Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, goes one better: He makes the opposing concepts sound compatible.
The 35-year-old lawyer comes by it honestly.
"Being gay, being in the minority, forces me to really think about what everyone else thinks beside myself," he says.
Right now Kefalas has an "exploratory committee" to see if there is enough money and political support to carry him into a credible campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by the retiring Barbara Mikulski. It's already a crowded and powerful field on the Democratic side, with U.S. Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen both having declared their interest, and U.S. Reps. Elijah Cummings, Dutch Ruppersberger and John Delaney, plus former U.S. Reps. Kweisi Mfume and Frank Kratovil and former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous all said to be mulling runs. On the Republican side the field is thinner, but both former Gov. Robert and First Lady Kendel Ehrlich could be contenders, along with U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, and a brace of others.
Kefalas has never held elected office, but with a career that includes stints in the Ehrlich administration and the Department of Justice and a speech-writing gig for Attorney General Eric Holder, he has cut a wide and impressive swath from his upbringing in Parkville, where he started his career working at Costas Inn, the family restaurant near Sparrows Point. Taught by a great aunt the value of hard work and "not letting the government tell you what to do," the lifelong Republican begins a phone interview pitching lower corporate taxes to promote competitiveness for his latest employer, NAM:
"Manufacturing today is not just smoke stacks and dirty shop floors," Kefalas says. "It's jobs for engineers and software developers."
In 2003 Ehrlich tapped Kefalas, then barely out of law school, to work on his executive clemency program as his deputy legal counsel. Kefalas distinguished himself in researching more than 400 cases, and Ehrlich received national plaudits for granting pardons in more than 200 cases and helping to change the conversation about executive clemency.
"In researching those cases," Kefalas says, "I heard very similar stories over and over. Often an African-American male goes into prison or into the juvenile justice system at 14 to 15. He may not know how to read or write, the family is broken, the father is absent, and maybe some family members spent time in prison."
A decent path to work and a productive life is not provided, Kefalas says, "so we've lost an entire generation to the criminal justice system. One in four African-American men will spend at least part of their lives in prison. That to me is untenable. It's shameful."
Ehrlich's record on executive clemency is perhaps all the more remarkable when contrasted with that of his successor. Martin O'Malley granted clemency in far fewer cases.
Kefalas says he developed this empathy as a closeted gay man from a conservative family. "I certainly know what it's like to be on the outside looking in—what it's like to feel like you're not part of a country that is moving forward," he says. "It forces you to really think about how others think, feel, and receive a particular proposal or policy."
Kefalas's testimony in 2011 before the Maryland General Assembly as it debated making gay marriage legal remains a powerful indictment of what was, and a hopeful example of the change determined people can make. (Maryland legalized same-sex marriage in 2012.) Kefalas told the lawmakers—many of whom he had worked with for years as an Ehrlich administration official—that, although he knew he was different from the age of 14, he fought to deny his sexuality, spending tens of thousands of dollars on "reparative therapy to try to fight what I looked at as an unnatural state of mind." He had come out to his family only a year earlier. His public statement shook the room.
"For me, not being able to experience the traditional Greek-American dream, or my take on it, felt for so long like a life lost," Kefalas told the committee on that day more than four years ago, when he was working as a lawyer at the Department of Justice. "My parents measure their success by the life of their children, and I dwelled so long on the thought that I would be in their eyes a failed son despite everything I have done, been, believed. I prayed for so long that I would be diagnosed with a terminal illness, maybe like my grandfather Panagioti, because the thought of telling my family and friends that over what I felt seemed better. I thought it would be better to not be around, to allow them and my sister and family to think of, remember me for who I was, not for who I might come to love.
"As a result of all these concerns, I thought of and seriously came close to ending my life, with the medications to overdose with and die."
But Kefalas did not die. He learned that he was born gay and had no choice in the matter. And that led to an epiphany: Conservative political philosophy fit perfectly his status as a gay man, and conservative Republicans—if they are to be true to their party's core values of individual freedom and equal justice before the law—should have no problem making gay marriage legal. "First, it is anti-conservative and antithetical to the principles of individual liberty and personal freedom to force government to stop me from partaking in a civil right essential to my place in the community," he said then. "Second, this is decidedly a state issue, not a religious one." He quoted Robert F. Kennedy on courage, but also Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan on equal protection, and President Calvin Coolidge, who said, "One of the greatest perils to an extensive republic is the disregard of individual rights."
Like a lot of Libertarian-leaning Republicans, Kefalas is opposed to the war on drugs, he says. On thorny matters such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama Administration's proposed trade agreement that recently gridlocked Congress as Democrats refused to give the president "fast-track" negotiation authority, Kefalas is intelligently equivocal. "I think we really need to see what emerges from the deal," he says, noting that the details are still secret.
One nexus where individual rights might clash with economic policy is immigration law, a political quagmire that has resisted substantive reform for a generation. Asked how he would approach this as the first openly-gay Republican senator, Kefalas takes an odd tack on the issue. "Start with fairer taxes," he says. "I believe in fairer taxes that help everyone. Sane regulation that helps bring manufacturing back to Baltimore. I believe in an immigration policy that recognizes much of the source of our innovation is immigrants."
"I'm a son, obviously a grandson of immigrants," Kefalas says on take two. "I think immigration reform is the right thing to do. While absolutely protecting our borders. We must bring people out of the shadows but in a way that respects the rule of law."
And here one can see the obligatory political seams where one idea gets stitched, jaggedly and with some loose threads, to a very different—if not exactly opposite—one. "Whether it's immigration or tax policy, or any other national security policy," Kefalas says, "I can forge consensus and get results."