Legendary Rose Institute alumnus Henry Olsen ’83 will return to Claremont October 17 to deliver the keynote address at the Rose Institute’s 40th Anniversary Dinner. Mr. Olsen will offer insights on the future of American politics, including the importance of understanding the nation’s shifting demographics and the corresponding changes in the electorate.
Mr. Olsen is presently a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a Washington, D.C.-based research organization dedicated to promoting American moral tradition in modern politics. For over 20 years, Mr. Olsen has conducted research on domestic public policies and their implications. He is most interested in long-term political trends and has written extensively on the intellectual foundation and direction of contemporary political thought. His work has been featured in a variety of major publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, National Review, and The Weekly Standard.
Mr. Olsen graduated from Claremont McKenna College in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. During his time at CMC, he became, arguably, the most famous research assistant in the Rose Institute’s history by taking a lead role in California’s 1980s redistricting wars. The battle began in 1981 when the California Legislature, under the leadership of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, produced new, gerrymandered legislative districts for the state. Speaker Brown decided to show the maps to the media in a private press conference. He excluded the general public and banned photography. The Rose Institute, which was acting as a “watchdog” over the legislature’s redistricting process, responded by sending Mr. Olsen to infiltrate the press conference to gain information about the maps. Using his photographic memory, Mr. Olsen carefully reviewed the full-sized maps. He then flew back to Claremont and briefed Rose Institute staff on details of proposed district lines. Mr. Olsen’s report confirmed the Institute’s suspicions regarding the legislature’s gerrymandering efforts. The Rose Institute held its own press conference the next day and its revelations helped spark widespread public interest in fair redistricting.
Governor Jerry Brown signed bills enacting the legislature’s gerrymandered districts, but angry citizens reacted by qualifying referendums to overturn the plans. In June 1982, voters approved the referendums by wide margins. When a defiant legislature enacted similar maps, Republican Assemblyman Don Sebastiani gathered a team of top political consultants to produce redistricting plans designed to replace the legislature’s gerrymandered plans with new, more competitive districts. Sebastiani rented the Rose Institute computers and sent the team to campus to work on the new maps. When at the Rose, Mr. Olsen showed them some of the work that he had done on his own. The team was impressed and asked him to join their effort. Mr. Olsen was instrumental in the team’s work and his plan is substantially what became the team’s finished product. Those maps were consolidated into a ballot initiative known as the “Sebastiani Initiative,” which qualified for a statewide special election in December 1983. However, in September 1983, the California Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Rose Bird, intervened and cancelled the election, holding that the state constitution allowed redistricting only once per decade. Willie Brown rejoiced, saying, “Sister Rose and the Supremes took care of that little matter.”
Following his college exploits, Mr. Olsen worked as a political consultant for a private California firm, then became a Legislative Assistant for the California State Assembly Republican Caucus. He later attended the University of Chicago Law School, where he served as Comment Editor for the University of Chicago Law Review. He received his J.D. in 1990. With a law degree in hand, he clerked for the Honorable Danny J. Boggs on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Sixth Circuit and went on to practice law at Dechert, LLP in Philadelphia.
Mr. Olsen has since held a number of senior executive roles for prominent think tanks, including positions as Vice President of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and President of the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives. Most recently he served as Vice President of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a prominent think tank that seeks to promote individual opportunity and free enterprise. In this position, he oversaw six departments, managed the Values & Capitalism project, and led an effort to develop agricultural policy reforms. In addition, he served as the director of AEI’s National Research Initiative, where he recruited and worked with leading academic scholars and public officials with broad knowledge and experience in domestic policy, to form a connection with AEI through funded projects and visiting fellowships. After seven years at AEI, Mr. Olsen left in August 2013 to join the Ethics and Public Policy Center to focus on his own research. As a Senior Fellow, he plans to write a book on the future of American conservatism called New Century, New Deal: How Conservatives Can Win Hearts, Minds, and Elections.
Mr. Olsen’s work seeks to explain why conservatism has been in decline among the American populace, particularly in the context of the 2012 election. He examines the way the nation’s demographics have changed over time, tracks the political voting patterns of various demographic groups, and analyzes how Democrats have substantially increased their share of non-white voters. Mr. Olsen addresses how the Republican Party must reach out to this emerging demographic majority and voters and win its support in coming elections.