ROGERS – With his soft face and eyes as blue as an Arkansas spring sky, Grant Hodges looks like he would be more suited with a backpack and a baseball cap.
But Hodges opts for a briefcase and an assortment of trouser socks. After all, aspiring politicians don’t carry backpacks, even if they are only 23 years old.
In late January, Hodges addressed his age in a speech he gave at a Conservative Arkansas meeting at Springcreek Church in Rogers.
Hodges decided the group of about 100 was large enough to showcase his wry humor. He looked over the crowd and told them the source of his inspiration was a young politician from Illinois, who eventually became president of the United States.
“Barack,” he said, then paused. “Just kidding. It was Abraham Lincoln. He first ran for the Illinois House of Representatives when he was 23.”
He is running as a Republican for the Arkansas House of Representatives in District 96, which takes up the eastern part of Benton County and includes most of Beaver Lake.
Hodges touts the same conservative ideals of limited government, low taxes and less regulation as his older Republican counterparts, but he believes he brings a different perspective to the table, especially concerning higher education.
Last year, he worked with lawmakers on the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. The scholarship is set up to incentivize students by giving them more money over time.
Hodges said that might not be the best course of action, because students learn to cut costs over time, so they don’t need as much money.
“It was almost backwards,” he said.
If he wins the primary against Damon Wallace of Gateway, it will all but guarantee his seat, because the constituents of District 96 are overwhelmingly Republican.
Hodges feels good about his chances in the primary because he has the luxury of being a full-time politician, which he affords by living frugally off of his savings. Sacrifices to keep costs at a minimum make it possible for him to dedicate his full energy and effort to the campaign.
The primary election is in May and less than two weeks after his 24th birthday.
A year ago, however, Hodges’ fresh face was just one of almost 25,000 at the University of Arkansas. In May 2013 with a turquoise Phi Beta Kappa cord and a medal honoring senior student leaders around his neck, Hodges graduated with a political science degree.
Now his smiling face can be found on his website, next to a link that invites readers to “Meet Grant,” and his red, white and blue logo is plastered proudly on two billboards provided by Bart Hester, a state senator Hodges met in Little Rock last year.
The billboards are an in-kind donation, because they are not monetary, and they will advertise in Prairie Creek for Hodges through the primary.
He’s getting by with more than just a little help from his friends. A fellow graduate and former UA Associated Student Government member, Mike Norton, designed GrantHodges.com.
Hodges’ logo and his press releases are the same way. His college roommate’s girlfriend, Maggie Jo Pruitt, designed his logo, and Will Simpson, the UA College Republicans vice-chairman, edited all of his press releases.
Much of the brainstorming for Hodges' campaign happened in December – and continues to happen – in the living room of the house he lived in during college.
It is evident the house is home to young men – the key décor is a 10-foot wide American flag hanging on the wall behind the couch and a large cutout of “The Incredible Hulk” is propped over the TV, which is always on, usually tuned to “Seinfeld” or “How I Met Your Mother” re-runs.
In early January, Pruitt sat cross-legged on one end of the couch, looking at the website and drafts of Hodges’ logo, while Hodges reviewed edits to his press release on the other end. Friends came and went, stopping to talk for a few minutes or getting distracted by a bit on the television.
One of his friends, who was present during the planning stages, has come on to the campaign as an intern.
“Interning on a campaign is often seen as a menial, thankless job, but working for Grant has been totally different,” Isaac Foley said.
Instead of working a room and leaving Foley to himself when they’re at political events, Hodges introduces Foley, wingman style. It’s an internship built on friendship, so when Hodges asks him to look up the contact information for political action committees, Foley knows he’ll be grateful and the information will actually be used.
That’s what Hodges says he is all about, listening to people and doing his best help them, in whichever ways they ask. This has paired well with his childhood interests of reading and watching the news.
“It’s a bit unusual for a young kid,” said Garry Hodges, Grant’s father.
After Grant was elected class president for three years during high school in Ozark, Mo., “I was starting to see that he was a natural born leader and wanted to pursue this dream. He knew this was his calling at an early age,” Garry said.
Hodges’ political interests really sparked in high school. He paid a lot of attention to the 2008 presidential election, especially to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s campaign, and even read Huckabee’s book, “From Hope to Higher Ground.”
With an adoration of Huckabee in one hand and an acceptance letter to the University of Arkansas in the other, he moved to Fayetteville in August 2009.
“I assumed Arkansas was this great big Republican state, and then I get here and realize that every state-wide official is a Democrat, and Northwest Arkansas is Republican,” Hodges said. “(At the time) I just moved to one of the most Democratic states in the country.”
So Hodges’ first order of business was to find the College Republicans group on campus. In a happy twist of fate, he was able to be an officer right off of the bat, because there were only five students in the club.
He jumped into Arkansan politics with both feet. During the school year, he worked with the College Republicans group and campaigned for local Republicans. By the time he was a senior, he was chairman, and the club had more than 450 students on its listserv.
During the summers, he worked with Arkansan politicians. He spent his first two summers interning in Arkansas, first for Sen. John Boozman, then for Rep. Steve Womack.
The summer between his junior and senior years, Hodges left Arkansas for the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., where he worked in the Center for Health Policy Studies and wrote articles arguing the Affordable Care Act’s negative impacts.
Despite being an exceptional student – he graduated with a 4.0 and was a Fulbright Senior Scholar – Hodges had the same question as most college graduates: “What now?”
Hodges had always thought he would move to Washington, D.C., after graduating, but when graduation rolled around, leaving didn’t feel right.
“I loved living in Northwest Arkansas,” he said. “I loved the area and being close to my family and my friends. I decided that I wanted to stay here and make my career here, make my life here.”
So in July, he took a job with the America Rising PAC as a tracker for Sen. Mark Pryor.
As a tracker, he became a self-proclaimed “creep” and followed Pryor around the state to different fundraisers, speaking engagements and political appearances.
Then in the early fall, Arkansas Sen. Jon Woods reached out to Hodges about an open seat in District 96. “We need young people in politics,” Woods said.
At first, Hodges was hesitant, but the idea grew on him.
“A lot of politics is just timing,” he said. “Taking advantage of opportunities when they come along, and they don’t happen often.”
And the timing seems to be right for Hodges. He’s received endorsements from Arkansas Sen. Cecile Bledsoe and retired Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt.
“I think he’s a worthy candidate, and I’d like to see him elected,” Bledsoe said.
Hodges smiled ear to ear when Bledsoe endorsed him. “She’s sweet as pie.”
With friends and mentors behind him, Hodges is focused on the race ahead and his role in the Republican Party. When he attends GOP events, he’s usually the youngest person in the room by at least 10 years and younger than the average age by about 20 years, he said.
“If the Republican Party and the limited government view are going to have a future,” Hodges said, “then people like me have to step up and be vocal and start taking on leadership roles in the party and make our generation a part of it.”