Only in America.
That’s what both of Frank LaRose’s grandfathers told him Saturday at brunch before LaRose was sworn in as Ohio’s 51st secretary of state at the Oliver Ocasek Building in downtown Akron.
The 39-year-old Republican is the descendant of Italians who immigrated to the U.S. about 100 years ago to pursue the American dream.
They found it with the House of LaRose, which distributed Budweiser beer in Akron for decades before moving and expanding in Brecksville.
Frank LaRose chose a different path.
And Saturday’s swearing-in deliberately celebrated the people who influenced LaRose along the way to public service and politics.
It started with place. LaRose, who grew up in Copley, said he wanted to take the oath in Akron as a way to say thank you.
He initially planned to host about 150 people in the lobby of the Summit County Courthouse.
But when RSVPs started rolling in, he knew he’d need a bigger space.
On Saturday, more than 900 people — including U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Republican state Senate President Larry Obhof and Democratic Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan — filled the atrium of the Senator Oliver R. Ocasek Government Office Building, sitting in rows of chairs in front of a stage and ringing the open railings of the second and thirds floors overlooking the space.
LaRose is the first Summit County resident elected Ohio secretary of state in about 166 years, Akron attorney and master of ceremonies Jim Simon told the crowd.
The last was Henry W. King who represented the free soil party, which was dedicated solely to opposing the expansion of slavery. (King Elementary school in Akron is named for King.)
LaRose told the crowd Saturday that every American generation solves a big problem.
For LaRose — who is on the cusp between Generation X and millennials — that problem is "making self-government work again," he said.
"Bipartisanship simply has to be the way we operate," he said, adding that Republicans and Democrats shouldn’t consider each other enemies.
"Our enemies are the problems we have to solve," he said, listing racism, hunger, addiction and bigotry as being among them.
"Compromise is not failure," he said. "It’s how we solve problems."
One of the problems LaRose will face in his job as secretary of state is maintaining accurate voter rolls.
Ohio’s process is considered one of the most stringent in the nation because it has removed thousands of people who failed to vote and then didn’t respond to government requests to affirm their voter registrations.
As one of his last acts, outgoing Secretary of State Jon Husted — who is now lieutenant governor — sent so-called "last chance mailings" to more than 275,000 inactive Ohio voters who also will be dropped off the rolls unless they respond.
LaRose, during an interview this week, called Ohio’s process "antiquated."
"It relies on 30 years of best guess if someone died or moved," he said.
LaRose said he wants to rely on data the state already collects but doesn’t share.
The secretary of state’s office should have access to updated home addresses every time a voter interacts with the state, he said. That includes renewing a driver’s license, paying taxes, getting benefits or a fishing license.
With access to those addresses and the dates of interaction with the state, many people’s voting registrations could hypothetically continue unchallenged until they die or move out of state, he said.
But breaking down the data silos between state agencies isn’t simple. LaRose said it would require a change in Ohio law.
LaRose said he’s already started talking to leading Democrats in the Ohio House and Senate. He also plans to meet with the League of Women Voters and the NAACP.
Ohio possibly has never had a secretary of state who better understands the right to vote.
As a soldier in Iraq, LaRose saw people risk their lives to vote — and risked his own to protect them.
Terrorists falsely claimed that voting was un-Islamic, LaRose said, and threatened to cut off the fingers of anyone who cast a ballot.
But Iraqis craving freedom ignored the danger, even when voting officials marked their fingers with purple ink to prevent them from voting again.
The ink lasted days, putting those who voted at risk. Yet many proudly displayed their purple fingers.
"It wasn't just an 'I voted today' sticker," he said during an interview. "They were saying you can't intimidate me. I'm a free man, I’m a free woman, and I defied the threats of terrorists today."
On Saturday, LaRose retold that story to the crowd after he was sworn in and asked: "How many of us unfortunately take voting for granted?"