Perfect storm launches 19-year-old Wheeling native into political punditry
One of the newest political pundits on the national scene comes from an apolitical family in Wheeling, and still sleeps in a bedroom with giraffes on the walls.
But Charlie Kirk -- founder of political Internet startup group Turning Point USA -- has far more experience in the political arena than the average 19-year-old, with regular appearances as an analyst on national television networks and spots introducing key speakers at conservative political action conferences attended by thousands.
It's a way of life that came almost accidentally to Kirk, a multisport athlete at Wheeling High School who, growing up, dreamed of little else than attending the United States Military Academy at West Point.
As a high school junior in 2010, Charlie Kirk volunteered for Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk's campaign merely, he laughs, because they shared the same name (they aren't related).
But a perfect storm of sorts was beginning to brew, and his rejection from West Point served as a push to enter head-first into politics, an arena where, it turns out, he's a natural.
Early on, his father Robert Kirk said, the family began to consider Charlie a "little bit different."
"He was always more clear on his surroundings and always better at questions," Robert Kirk said. "Always better able to understand what's happening than your typical kid."
Wheeling Football Coach Jim Golden saw it, too. "I saw something in Charlie that I knew down the road we more than likely would be hearing his name. Seeing him. Sure enough, he's on Fox News and C-SPAN. I happened to turn on the television the other day and there he was."
As a high school senior in April 2012, Kirk was spotted by Bill Montgomery, then a Tea Party-backed legislative primary candidate from Lemont, at an event at Benedictine University in Lisle where area high school students debated the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The audience was restless and bored until Charlie got up to speak, Montgomery said.
"Everyone was captivated," Montgomery said.
Montgomery, who also was active in political campaigns in Florida before his retirement, said he decided to approach Kirk then and there.
"You've gotta get involved in politics," Montgomery told him.
Taking Montgomery's advice, Kirk, in the following few weeks, decided to defer his acceptance to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, for a year.
Instead, the former Wheeling varsity basketball captain and Eagle Scout enrolled in general education classes at Harper College in Palatine as he founded Turning Point USA, a not-for-profit aimed at engaging those in Kirk's own generation about politics. The group is described on its website as having a mission of starting "conversations among young people, by educating students about fiscal responsibility, free markets and capitalism. Through nonpartisan debate, dialogue, and discussion, Turning Point USA believes that every young person can be enlightened to true free market values."
The bright, visually busy site, Kirk says, aims to grab his peers with what matters to them -- it features a continually running "student debt clock" and a giant collection of political memes that visitors are encouraged to share via social media and email.
The group has a following of 9,200 people on Facebook, sponsors 15 different college groups, and has nearly 40 young columnists contributing to the site.
While he still calls his Wheeling childhood bedroom home, Kirk has traveled the country in recent months with Montgomery, who serves as an adviser "so Charlie doesn't get taken advantage of."
Kirk has appeared on Fox News, CNBC, and the Fox Business channel, and, last month, introduced Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.
"The first time, it was a big event and we had all of our relatives watch," Robert Kirk said. "Now, it's almost routine."
Charlie describes himself as "really big on networking" -- cataloging and following up with those who give him business cards at political events. The skill, he said, ultimately helped him net first a tryout spot for CPAC, then the formal invitation to introduce Walker.
Kirk calls himself an independent and has only voted in one political election, in November 2012. He says he has no aspirations for elected office right now.
"This is the place for me now," he says, with a confident nod.