Steve Driehaus Finds His True North

The former politician leads Cincinnati Compass, the region’s ”Welcome Wagon” for immigrants, after years of Peace Corps service in Africa.
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When Steve Driehaus graduated from Miami University in 1988, his Green Township parents urged him to go to law school as the path to success, perhaps in a political career like his father’s. Driehaus chose instead to embark on a journey that would lead him halfway around the world and back again, eventually holding state and national office and serving now as Cincinnati’s unofficial global ambassador.

Steve Driehaus photographed at his home on October 26, 2018

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

First there was Senegal. Fresh from a degree in political science and diplomacy and foreign affairs, he volunteered for the Peace Corps in a remote West African village of 300 people. Driehaus taught villagers how to make clay ovens to save fuel, dug latrines for families and the local school, planted trees to preserve farmland from the encroaching desert, and led classes in sustainable gardening. He was adopted by the family of a community leader, lived in their hut, ate their food, and learned their Wolof language and customs. A bucket of water each morning was his only way to stay clean. He took on the family name and became known as Ibrahima Gaye.

Eight months into his stay, he saw his 40-year-old “father” Souleymane Gaye wither away and die from stomach cancer, his only treatment the pain medicine Driehaus was able to obtain through a French physician he knew in the region’s capital. Afterward, as the oldest male in the family, he became the head of the household and, by tradition, was given Souleymane’s clothes to wear and his bed to sleep in. During the second of his two-year stay, Driehaus also fell ill, contracting viral meningitis. When he returned to Cincinnati to recover, his parents begged him to stay. He didn’t. He returned to Senegal and finished his commitment.

Two decades later, after a stint in politics, Driehaus again returned to Africa and the Peace Corps, this time taking his wife and children along. He stayed six years. With his youngest ready to start high school, Driehaus and family moved back here late last year and now live in Finneytown, not far from where he grew up.

But the lessons of Africa and the Peace Corps are still with him, Driehaus says, and inform his work as executive director of Cincinnati Compass—the City of Cincinnati, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, and local universities partnership aimed at helping immigrants, refugees, and international students take advantage of all the opportunities the region has to offer them—and as a political and policy consultant.

“The Peace Corps teaches you how to be humble enough to accept and appreciate another culture,” he says. “And with that you gain a new way of looking at things. So I don’t judge people as quickly based upon what they look like or where they might be from.”

After earning his master’s degree in public administration from Indiana University and then heading up Xavier University’s Community Building Institute, Driehaus launched a political career in 2000 as a state representative for his native west side. In 2008, he did the unthinkable, challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot in the 1st District and winning, thanks to the large Democratic voter turnout for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Chabot ran against him in the mid-term election of 2010. Far fewer Democrats went to the polls, and Driehaus was out after one term.

His next career choice, he says, was simple: “I decided to turn to my first love, international development.” The Peace Corps took him back, naming him country director in the fight against AIDS in Swaziland and then country director for youth development with a concentration on gender empowerment in Morocco, where Driehaus was responsible for training and overseeing the activities of more than 200 volunteers. But the decision wasn’t so easy for his family, at least not in the beginning.

Driehaus’s wife Lucienne, who was raised in Mexico until age 7 and whose father now lives in Spain, admitted she was a bit confounded when her husband told her one evening he wanted to take the family—with children in grades three, six, and 10—to Swaziland. Her reply? “You said Swaziland? You know, I just don’t remember Swaziland from my fifth grade geography.” But when they started looking into it, she recalls, “I said, ‘Why not?’ It was the perfect opportunity for both Steve and the family. But the kids didn’t want to go. They weren’t happy about leaving their friends or their extended family.”

But all three children came to love their time in Africa, especially their experience in the Waterford Kamhlaba school in Swaziland, where they made lifelong friends with classmates from around the world. Waterford was founded in 1963 by a group of teachers in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa after they were driven out of the country to neighboring Swaziland. Both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu sent their children there. “So it has this tremendous social justice mission and this idea of racial inclusion,” says Driehaus. “And academically it’s just stellar.”

Alex, the oldest, spent two years there before returning to Ohio and earning her bachelor’s degree in photojournalism at Ohio University. She now works for Naples Daily News in Florida. Clare entered Macalester College in Minnesota, where she is officially registered as an international student. Jack, the youngest, is in his sophomore year at St. Xavier.

The Driehauses’s modest two-story home is filled with colorful reminders of their years in Africa. An 8-foot carved giraffe stands guard between the living the room and the entrance to the sun porch. Pillows from Morocco and a wedding blanket from Mali cozy up the sofa and chairs. Baskets from Swaziland dot nooks and crannies. The walls are adorned with mahogany masks from Cameroon, drawings from Swaziland, and carved wooden birds from Mozambique. An umbrella stand holds a thicket of walking sticks Driehaus collected during his travels throughout Africa. His prized possession, he says, is an intricately carved cedar bar, one of his final purchases in Morocco.

Incredibly, whenever Driehaus wants to brush up on his Wolof, he need only visit Hartwell and the Senegalese restaurant Teranga, which he discovered on the recommendation of a docent at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. On his first visit there, after the customary exchange of Wolof greetings with the young woman behind the counter, Driehaus learned that she was a cousin of the family he’d lived with three decades ago in Senegal. He asked her, “Do you remember when you were a little girl and a white guy would come to your house to play with you and your brothers? He’d bring mangoes to your father and mother.” “Oh, yeah,” she replied. “That was Ibrahima Gaye,” Driehaus told her. “That was me.”

In his first Peace Corps duty after college, Driehaus plants trees with villagers in Senegal.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

In many ways, Driehaus continues to channel the spirit of Ibrahima Gaye while assimilating back into everyday life here. He runs Cincinnati Compass as an independent contractor in order to flex his time with political consulting commitments, operating out of a downtown office that bridges the needs of Cincinnati’s businesses and its growing international community. “The world has come into Steve’s office,” says his cousin and former journalist Bob Driehaus, who occupies the office next door. “People from Bhutan and Senegal and Guatemala, from every continent.” That includes a young woman entrepreneur in Cincinnati’s African-American community interested in expanding her business and entertainment consulting services to Ghana and local executives seeking contacts in other parts of Western Africa and to the south in Zimbabwe.

Driehaus says the current American hysteria over immigration is “quite frankly founded on ignorance. We would not be having the debate over immigration we’re having if more decision-makers had spent time overseas learning about other cultures. They would find there is nothing to fear, that ethnic diversity is a strength, not a weakness.” More Americans at every level should experience other cultures, he says, “not in any way to deny our own Americanism or patriotism. I think many [Peace Corps] volunteers come back more patriotic than when they left. They have a deeper appreciation for the United States and what it stands for. But they also have a global experience.”

Between 2000 and 2015, the foreign-born population in the Great Lakes Region grew 14 times faster than U.S.-born residents, according to the New American Economy, a bipartisan coalition of political and business leaders devoted to immigration reform. Driehaus says the African community, which accounts for about 20 percent of immigrants here, is large and vibrant—“people from Senegal, Kenya, Ghana. I was just today with a Mauritanian” seeking advice for organizing a cultural event involving a visit from the country’s ambassador.

Cincinnati Compass is a member of the Ohio Welcoming Initiatives Network and collaborates with metro regions across the Midwest in the WE Global Network, which promotes the area as a desirable destination for people from around the world. A growing immigrant population is a sign of the region’s strength, not its weakness, says Driehaus. “We live in a global society. We are far more interconnected than we’ve ever been through commerce, through telecommunications, through the internet.” In 2016 alone, the Cincinnati region’s 92,727 foreign-born residents paid $912 million in taxes and spent $2.3 billion to boost the economy, NAE data shows.

“There are many, many examples of immigrants who’ve done well in Cincinnati and are giving back to the community,” says Driehaus. He points to Christopher Che, an immigrant from Cameroon and chief executive of Che International Group, a multinational holding group specializing in graphics, printing, and packaging. Che sits on the boards of both the Cincinnati regional and Ohio chambers of commerce and served on President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Driehaus also cites Cincinnati Compass board member Mahendra Vora, an Indian immigrant and founder of Vora Ventures, a privately held equity group that builds innovative IT companies. Vora, a finalist last year for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, is scouting locations downtown to consolidate the company’s scattered offices into a new building, Driehaus says.

“Immigration is a huge issue that doesn’t just affect our borders but our community,” Driehaus says. Quite simply, Cincinnati wouldn’t be Cincinnati without the contributions of its immigrants—from its distinctive style of chili (Greek immigrants) to its rich tradition of classical music (German immigrants), from its landmark Suspension Bridge (designed by German immigrant John Roebling) to its Blue Chip corporate mainstay (founded by Irish immigrant James Gamble and British immigrant William Procter), and beyond the city limits for its key role in ending the worldwide scourge of polio thanks to Polish immigrant Albert Sabin.

Driehaus learned another important lesson overseas, he says: How government devoted to the betterment of its people can still make a difference. That’s the kind of government that, although it’s hit a rough patch in Washington these days, he believes the U.S. still possesses. “If you spend any time in developing countries, when you return to the United States you have a greater appreciation of just how well things work here. You turn on your lights, and they stay on. You have running water in your house, and it doesn’t go off either. And you don’t have to be afraid to drink it. You have a medical system that works. You go to the post office and you can mail something easily. You can register your car in 10 minutes, whereas in Morocco it might take days or even weeks.”

Government—in particular good government—is the answer to many of the nation’s problems, not its cause, as many Americans now believe, Driehaus says. That philosophy is the foundation of the aptly named Good Government Group, the consulting agency he launched in February to complement his role with Cincinnati Compass. He is joined in the business by Bob Driehaus and Kevin Tighe, a politics wunderkind with campaign experience in both Ohio and Kentucky. The partners have dubbed themselves a “full service agency” doing campaign consulting, public policy advising, and lobbying. In all cases, they say, their clients must be aligned with the agency’s mission.

“Steve and I got together little more than a year ago and talked about what we could do to help out on public policy and get better people into office,” says Bob Driehaus, whose corner office in the Gwynne Building has two unheard-of perks for a veteran newsman: a door and a window view. Tighe had previously helped manage the successful election bids of Denise Driehaus, Steve’s sister, for Hamilton County Commissioner and Tamaya Dennard for Cincinnati City Council.

Besides consulting for mostly Democratic Party candidates, the trio also advises elected officials on good government practices and how to achieve them. Steve Driehaus “certainly has the right kind of experience for the job,” says Sean Comer, Xavier University’s head of government relations. During his eight-year career in the Ohio House of Representatives, Driehaus earned a reputation as a fiscal conservative willing to grapple with details and reach across the aisle to compromise. By his third term, he was elevated to Minority Whip and, in his fourth and final term, was honored as Democratic Legislator of the Year by the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

Driehaus says he didn’t want to cash in as a “gun for hire” lobbyist as former legislators often do, but he and his partners are happy to connect people and causes they believe in with the powers that be. A current client is a group of Ohio educators who have devised a curriculum to help high school and college students develop basic skills for tackling biology, chemistry, and math. Studies have shown this approach lowers the attrition rate among college students taking science classes. The Good Government Group has connected the client with Chancellor John Carey of the Ohio Department of Higher Education and his staff and with several college presidents about expanding the curriculum throughout the community college system.

Steve Driehaus and family in Swaziland in 2011, from left Alex, Jack, Lucienne, and Clare

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

The company has also been helping Dennard find ways of turning her social justice ideals into policy measures, including a goal of property tax reform, during her first City Council term. “I’m a creative being, but I’ve never held public office before,” says Dennard. “Steve has been really helpful” showing her how to forge relationships with city and state officials, especially “older people in government who a lot of times are not responsive to innovation and change.”

Driehaus currently has no plans to run for office again himself, a tall order for someone who grew up in a decidedly political family with the chutzpah to be Democrats on the west side. His father Don, who later became co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, first ran for Congress in 1968 when Steve was just 2. “I have seven brothers and sisters, and we grew up campaigning,” he says. “That’s what we did in the summers and fall. We put up yard signs, we went canvassing door to door. Election Day was like a holiday for us. I would take off school to work the polls.”

He misses serving in office, Driehaus admits, but doesn’t miss being a candidate. Fund-raising, the bane of every officeholder, now overshadows actual government work, he says—millions of dollars must be raised in every congressional and statewide race, primarily for TV advertising and to counter blistering attack ads from well-funded opponents. “As a member of Congress, I spent two or three hours a day asking people for money, and I never want to do that again,” he says. Worse are the wealthy outside groups, so-called Political Action Committees (PACs), that he claims have wrested control of local and statewide campaigns away from the candidates and their constituencies.

Nuanced political positions don’t play as well today, says Driehaus, a pro-life liberal whose deeply sorted yet conflicted feelings about abortion can be traced back to both his Catholic upbringing and his early experiences in Africa. “I’ve seen young women in Africa who were raped or who grew up being abused and then find themselves pregnant,” he says. “They know that that child is going to live a very difficult life because of the circumstances they were born into, and abortion is just not an option for them. It’s illegal. In both my education and my Catholicism, what I have learned is that it’s OK to question things. It’s OK to ask those tough moral questions and to struggle with it. I struggle with the issue of abortion. I don’t come to easy conclusions, and I have trouble with people who do on the pro-life side and the pro-choice side.”

Returning to the lesson of humility he learned in the Peace Corps, Driehaus is unsure if he has a strict ideology these days. “I believe in justice. I believe in freedom. I believe what the Catholic Church teaches in terms of serving the poor and welcoming your neighbor. But I don’t know if I know the right answers. You’ve got to be open to things, and that’s a big problem today because too many people aren’t.”

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