His college career was interrupted repeatedly by some powerful forces—the Air Force, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the U.S. Department of Interior, and even the White House.
But when State Rep. Cliff Rosenberger walked up to receive his diploma at Wright State University last December, he still felt a little sheepish.
“Here I am, 30 years old; I should have done this a long time ago,” Rosenberger remembered thinking. “But at the end of the day, it felt really good.”
Good feelings are nothing new for Rosenberger, whose political career has taken off like a rocket.
Rosenberger felt good when he drove a life squad vehicle at age 16 as a fire cadet in his hometown village of Clarksville in southwest Ohio; he felt good when he enlisted in the Air National Guard and later helped troops and supplies deploy to the Persian Gulf following the terrorist attacks of 9/11; he felt good when he worked at the White House as a political coordinator for President George W. Bush; he felt good when he directed political events for the Romney presidential campaign; he felt good when he worked as special assistant to U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne; and he felt good when he was elected as an Ohio state representative from his hometown district.
Rosenberger traces the political fire in his belly to August 2001, when he raced up to Wright State from Clarksville in hopes of seeing Bush at a presidential campaign stop. Rosenberger arrived just as Bush’s motorcade did, but he was stopped from getting close by a police line.
“I swore that day, I said, ‘I’m going to work for that man someday,’” Rosenberger recalled. “And I said, ‘I will never be behind this line again.’”
Today, Rosenberger sits in an office overlooking the Ohio Statehouse. He is in his second term, chairs the Ohio House Higher Education Finance Subcommittee, and is a newly appointed member of the powerful state Controlling Board. His office bulges with memories, passions, and reminders of his political odyssey.
Sitting on a shelf is his grandmother’s ration book from World War II and the fire helmet of his father, who served in the Clarksville volunteer fire department for 25 years. Serving as a nod to Rosenberger’s military interest is a flag flown on the USS Ohio nuclear submarine, a photograph of Rosenberger with the Army Golden Knights at Fort Bragg, N.C., and a photo of the Hanoi Taxi, famous for bringing back the first returned POWs from Vietnam.
His passion for history is revealed by copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, the oldest known photo of the White House (1846), and Bush’s published papers. And his soft spot for Wright State is evidence by a Rowdy Raider bobblehead doll and a prominent empty space on the wall reserved for Rosenberger’s newly earned college diploma, a Bachelor of Science in urban affairs/public administration.
Rosenberger said he enjoyed the intimacy of Wright State’s campus and the one-on-one attention students receive there.
“Even if you had some trouble every once in a while, the professors never held it against you and were always willing to come back and help you out,” he said. “That’s what I liked about Wright State.”
Rosenberger’s boyhood was a small-town, rural, family affair in which his parents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles were all close by. Rosenbergers populated the volunteer fire department, village council, and even the mayor’s office.
“I got a sense of community from my family,” Rosenberger said.
Rosenberger’s mother is South Korean, having met his father when he was stationed there with the U.S. Army. His father’s military service was an influence for Rosenberger.
“I grew up with it,” he said. “We always watched war movies. And it gave me a sense of history at the same time.”
Rosenberger attended Clinton-Massie High School and was pretty shy at the time.
“I remember a Student Council race where I was absolutely terrified to get up and speak in front of a bunch of people,” he said. “Who would have ever thought in a million years I would be a state representative?”
Rosenberger’s parents couldn’t afford to send him to Wright State, so he enlisted in the Air National Guard and had his tuition reimbursed, becoming the first in his family to attend college. He was initially assigned to the 178th Fighter Wing in Springfield, Ohio, but had stops in Wisconsin and the Washington, D.C., area during his 12-year military career.
As a freshman at Wright State majoring in political science, Rosenberger quickly immersed himself in politics. He got involved with the College Republicans and worked as a volunteer in Mike Turner’s campaign for Dayton mayor and other local races. He became the Clinton County event coordinator for the Bush re-election campaign and then the Miami Valley college coordinator, in which he recruited college students to do door-to-door canvassing, voter identification, and helping to register other students.
After Bush was elected president, Rosenberger won an internship with the White House Office of Political Affairs, responsible for the states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. He would devour the daily political news stories in those states, analyze the political dynamics, learn who the political players were, and put it all into a briefing paper given to the president when he traveled there. The internship ultimately led to a job at the White House as a staff assistant political coordinator.
“For a kid who comes from a town of 400 people, to work in the White House and walk in those doors is one of the most amazing things in the world,” Rosenberger said. “There wasn’t a day that I walked down West Executive Avenue to go out those iron gates and shut the door behind me and not turn around and gaze at the building I was working in.”
A job as political events director for Romney’s presidential campaign then took Rosenberger to Massachusetts, where he managed the events budget, selected the venues for campaign stops, and supervised the campaign workers.
That experience led to a similar job with Interior Secretary Kempthorne. Rosenberger would brief the secretary and travel ahead of him to make sure the event was ready and that security was in place.
During one stop in New York City, Rosenberger learned an important life lesson when Kempthorne interrupted his itinerary to help two foreign tourist couples document their stop outside Rockefeller Center by taking photos of them with their camera. In full tuxedo and surrounded by security, Kempthorne got down on one knee to get the best shots.
“He taught me a great deal about humility,” Rosenberger said. “I learned about making sure you don’t let things get to your head in certain offices, and making sure you thank everybody you come into contact with who helps you along the way.”
Rosenberger’s decision to run for state representative followed urging by his friends in southwest Ohio. The clincher came when Rosenberger saw a segment of CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes on the 2008 pullout of DHL from Wilmington, Ohio, which cost thousands of jobs and dealt a punishing psychological blow to the region.
“A week later, my mom lost her job; she was laid off,” said Rosenberger. “I said, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to help my community.’”
Since winning election, Rosenberger has had a laser-like focus on attracting and retaining jobs in his district and Ohio. He helped orchestrate the financing of an airplane maintenance hangar at the Wilmington Air Park to support 250 new jobs. And he has led overseas trade missions to Israel and Turkey.
“My number one goal every time I wake up in the morning is how do I bring jobs and turn Ohio around to be a better economic state in our country,” he said. “And we go 110 percent.”