MANCHESTER, N.H. (Jan. 8, 2012) — For Jake Wagner, the decision to attend Saint Anselm College was easy — it offered a chance to be a part of New Hampshire politics.
“I was hooked from the moment I found out about it,” said Wagner, a sophomore at Saint Anselm and Cheektowaga, N.Y., native.
Wagner, a 2010 graduate of Maryvale High School, has had a passion for politics since he was 8 years old, when he became captivated by then-Sen. John McCain during his 2000 presidential bid. When it came time to choose a college, Wagner knew he wanted to be in New Hampshire, the center of the political universe in the primary season. Since enrolling at Saint Anselm, he’s met many of his political idols and now volunteers for presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman’s campaign.
“What happens in New Hampshire is truly the purest form of democracy — it’s democracy at it’s best. That’s why I’m up here in New Hampshire,” said Wagner. He is majoring in — what else? — politics with a minor in campaign management.
His fascination with politics is rooted in childhood. He can remember seeing McCain on the news when he won the New Hampshire primary in 2000. A third-grader at the time, he became a staunch McCain supporter. With a purple magic marker, he made himself a button that read “John McCain for President.” He wore it almost every day.
Peter Wagner, Jake’s father and a retail manager for Family Dollar in Buffalo, recalled the start of his sons passion for politics. “Every time the commercial came on for John McCain,” Peter Wagner said, “he became all excited and told everyone in the living room to shut up.”
That passion is still fierce, said his father. When Jake came home for winter break, said Peter Wagner, his mind was all politics, all the time. “He comes in the living room, he gives us a speech about what’s going on in his life, which is all politics,” Peter said.
Peter himself is a registered Democrat. But his son makes sure to stake out the yard with Republican signs. It makes the house stick out in the neighborhood, Peter said, because Cheektowaga is a Democratic town.
In high school, Jake got hooked on college in New Hampshire after a college fair where he learned about Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H.. But shortly after arriving there, he knew he wanted to be closer to the political action. He heard about Saint Anselm and its New Hampshire Institute of Politics when volunteering on Kelly Ayotte’s campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from New Hampshire.
For the second semester of his freshman year, Jake had landed at Saint Anselm. Here he’s executive director of the College Republicans. He’s a regular at the college’s political events. He seldom misses a visit by a politico.
In June, he began working on the Huntsman campaign. He’s met Huntsman and his family several times. During the summer, he sometimes was on the road back to New Hampshire to support the campaign, making the 8-hour drive from Buffalo and returning home the next day. As a volunteer he makes phone calls, knocks on doors, hangs around the campaign office ready for spur-of-the-moment chores. He also acted as a stand-in for Huntsman prior to Saturday’s ABC News/WMUR debate.
And, he says, he’s converted most of Saint Anselm’s College Republicans to Huntsman supporters.
Wagner plans to build a career working on campaigns. One day, he said, he hopes to ascend to the level of John Weaver, a well-known Republican campaign strategist who worked for McCain in 2008 and now advises Huntsman. Like many children, Wagner also set his sights on becoming president of the United States. That goal may be a bit lofty, he now says, but he’s not ruling out a run for political office in the future.
For now, he’s delighted with his college choice: “You can go to D.C. You can go to a really good school with a really good political program. But when it comes to hands-on learning experience, you get nothing else like at St. Anselm.”
(Kathleen Ronayne, a senior with dual majors in newspaper journalism and political science at Syracuse University, is covering the New Hampshire primary for The Buffalo News.)