Adam Headlee enjoys his political memorabilia. Already at age 25, the legislative aide has packed his office in Ohio's capital with collectible conversation pieces: campaign buttons, historic photographs, a display of founding father bobbleheads.
So when Headlee learned that the state Chamber of Commerce had produced a deck of trading cards featuring the names and faces of every sitting state lawmaker, his collector's instincts kicked in.
“After I got a couple of members who I knew well to sign their cards, I thought, I wonder how many could I get?" he said. "Could I get 10? Could I get 20? Could I get 30?”
Ultimately, Headlee landed the John Hancocks of all 99 members of the Ohio House. He was pleasantly surprised that lawmakers of both parties played along and seemed to enjoy it.
“Silly as it may sound, there's a very subtle lesson of unity underlying all this, because everybody thought their trading card was cool,” he said. “Starting off, I thought, statistically speaking, at least one of the 99 is going to tell me to go pound salt and won't sign their card. But, the closer I got, everybody was a good sport about it.”
Headlee made certain rules for himself as he pursued the signatures. Notably, he wouldn't interrupt legislators as they conducted official business in committee or on the House floor.
He noticed that he ran into many of the same lawmakers repeatedly at first, because they shared something — party, geography, a policy interest — with his boss, state Rep. Adam Bird, a Republican from the village of New Richmond.
Headlee fairly easily collected his first 60 signatures. He'd catch people in the halls or on the streets around Columbus Capitol Square. Many representatives didn't even know the cards existed.
“There were several members who I don't think realized they'd had a baseball card made of them," he said. “I always liked to see the smile on a member's face when I got to explain where these came from."
The Ohio Chamber produces the cards once per decade and distributes them at its annual policy conference, spokesperson Courtney Whetstone said.
Attendees this September received a rubber-banded packet of about 20 cards when they arrived, then more cards when they attended additional events, she said.
“They were randomized, and certain packs were held back for the second day, so you had to be there both days to get them all,” she said. “They were really aggressively being traded.”
Headlee pulled a string with a friend to get a complete deck, he said, which also includes cards for Ohio's 33 state senators, one for Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and a group of cards showing current members as they looked in 2001.
He took to carrying his cards everywhere, tucked into his jacket pocket along with an official House signing pen. He thought it a nice touch, but the pens sometimes smudged on the shiny cardstock.
Rep. Kent Smith, a suburban Cleveland Democrat, offered a lesson when Headlee tracked him down at a vintage baseball game on Statehouse grounds: Use a Sharpie. Smith had been signing trading cards for fans for years, as a veteran announcer for the Burning River and Chicago Outfit roller derby leagues. Permanent marker, he told Headlee, was the way to go.
One lawmaker, a Democrat, asked to sign in blue. Some dated their cards. One lawmaker, a minister, added a “God Bless You.” Another, hoping to confound historians, scribbled “Drink more Scotch.” Rep. Latyna Humphrey, a newly seated Columbus Democrat, happily signed her district's blank card, just above the “To Be Determined.”
As Headlee's stack of unsigned cards dwindled, the aide had to be more deliberate. He asked mutual acquaintances for key introductions, pigeonholed members after committee hearings or called their offices for appointments.
Finally, on the Thursday before lawmakers broke for the holidays, Headlee got his 99th signature. It was from House Democratic Leader Emilia Sykes, whose frenetic schedule during the past two months had included a role in the high-profile, deadline-driven redistricting process.
“She's obviously very busy,” he said. “I was thinking maybe that's a bridge too far, I might not get the chance.”
But a member who had already signed their own card briefed Sykes on Headlee's project and arranged for them to meet.
As she signed with a gracious smile, Headlee said it bolstered his hopes for the future of politics in these fractious days. “That somebody cared enough about my little project to do that, I was very grateful.”
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