J.D. Vance reached a pinnacle as a best-selling author recounting his tribulations growing up in a “chaotic and dysfunctional home” in Middletown.
But the 33-year-old Yale Law School graduate and a principal in a Silicon Valley venture capital firm moved back to Ohio early this year in the midst of winter from San Francisco, California to tackle, he says, some of the same problems he wrote about in his New York Times best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy. An upcoming Hollywood movie will focus on the memoir.
“I’ve always wanted to move back to Ohio,” Vance said in a Thursday interview with the Dayton Daily News. “…I really wanted to work on some of the problems I write about in the book because it’s primarily diagnostic, it’s not prescriptive so I talk about those problems but I don’t necessarily talk about a way out and I think that to work on those solutions is (number) one, important and two, you have to be close to where the problems are.”
Vance enlisted in the Marines after he graduated from Middletown High School in 2003 and was sent to Iraq. The Ohio State University alumnus lives in Columbus with his wife and an infant son. Vance was raised by his working-class grandparents after his parents divorced when he was an infant.
“It was not a place where mom and dad were living together in a successful marriage,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We weren’t a ‘Leave It To Beaver’ family. There was a fair amount of emotional and physical abuse so it was one of the things that made it chaotic.
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“But definitely addiction was one of the things that made it even worse and even more difficult to bear,” he said. “My mom struggled with addiction for much of my childhood and when that happens it’s really hard to worry about things like maintaining a successful home and raising your kids. I think my mom did as best as she could, but addiction takes its toll and it took its toll on our family.”
He attributes his grandparents and other family members, including his mother, with his path to a successful life.
Vance said he started the nonprofit “Our Ohio Renewal” to create educational pathways to the middle class for lower income youth and to deal with the “really terrible opioid crisis.”
“If you think about it, a lot of kids are either faced with go to college or go to work in a fast-food job and I think that it’s a real failure of our education system that we don’t have apprenticeships, vocational education and trade schools that actually enable people to live a middle-class lifestyle,” he said.
The venture capitalist said he invested in the Rise of the Rest Initiative to bring technology and other middle class wage paying jobs to areas most in need, like Ohio, and not only high investment places such as New York, Massachusetts and California.
“I just don’t think that all of the good businesses and all of the good jobs should be in those three states and so there are ways that we can try to encourage people to invest and to create jobs in places like Ohio,” he said.
The Republican took the economic message of helping those in need to the Montgomery County Republican Party Business and Economic Coalition at a “Reagan Roundtable” on Thursday at the Dayton Country Club.
The GOP has to be the party of the working and middle class, he said.
“I think the problems I write about in the book, they’re not just unique to my family and to my community,” Vance said. “They’re actually pretty broadly spread across the country and I think Republicans sometimes get a bad rap as the party of the rich. Sometimes they don’t focus enough I think on the problems of the working and middle class Americans so I was trying to encourage my fellow Republicans … to worry about those people, worry about those problems and to think about actual solutions to some of those problems.”
The author said there were “a lot of reasons” Donald Trump connected with working class voters in the 2016 presidential campaign to claim the White House.
“He was the first Republican candidate in a really long time to say the old agenda of the Republican Party just wasn’t working any more for the working and middle class, that we focus too much on tax cuts and not enough on trade…. that we don’t focus enough on jobs …
“But I also think he’s obviously a charismatic person. He has a certain style that is unique in American politics. He’s not afraid to speak off-the-cuff, he’s not afraid to offend people and I think that off-the-cuff style connects with people who are used to talking about politics like you might talk around the dinner table and not like a lot of folks talk about politics these days.”
Vance added it’s too early to predict if Trump will fulfill campaign promises.
“The president made a lot of big promises and he made lot of important promises and I’m certainly very hopeful that he will be able to deliver,” Vance said. “There is a problem with joblessness in the middle part of the country. We do have a broken health care sector. We do have a broken immigration system and I think it’s frankly just too early to say whether the president has been successful on a lot of these promises, but I’m certainly rooting for him as I think everybody who cares about the country should.”
Even so, he said, the political climate in the country is “awful” and “really conducive to yelling and screaming at each other” at the expense of getting things accomplished on pressing issues like unemployment and the opioid crisis.
“It’s just frankly depressing that somebody who cares about the country and who thinks politics can be a force for good to see our political process the way it is now,” he said.
Some observers have speculated he could be a future presidential candidate. But Vance said he has no plans today to run for public office. “I think the political process is a valuable way to solve problems and I would never rule out being a part of it, but I’m focused on other stuff right now,” he said.