Best Place to Prepare for a Career in Politics? A Bar in Little Falls…
At least that’s one of the observations that Kris Balderston made while I was interviewing him for this story. He is a Little Falls native who has had a 25-year career in Washington, which has included leadership positions across the U.S. Government, from the White House, to the U.S. Senate and State Department.
Balderston served as the Secretary’s Special Representative for Global Partnerships and managed the Global Partnership Initiative in the Office of the Secretary of State. Prior to his role at the United States Department of State, Balderston was Senator Hillary Clinton’s first legislative director in January 2001, before serving as her Deputy Chief of Staff from 2002 to 2009.
He served in the White House under Bill Clinton from 1995 to 2001, as Special Assistant to the President for Cabinet Affairs and then later as the Deputy Assistant to the President and the Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet.
About three years ago, Kris returned to Little Falls and felt that something had changed here. “We walked around, went to the Co-op, got a pizza at Ed’s Pizza. We felt something has happened here,” he said.
He had seen the changes that had been happening on the south side, but it was clear that something larger was definitely happening in Little Falls in general.
Balderston said “My father ran bars in Little Falls all of his life and he ran the Elks Club for a number of years.”
Growing up in the City was a huge factor and influence in the things that he has accomplished. “I do feel lucky to have had these experiences, and I think a lot of it was driven out of my experience growing up in Little Falls,” stated Balderston.
When it comes to learning about politics, Balderston said “I think my father having three bars and growing up in the bar business, where I constantly saw all different classes of people together in one place to talk, to argue, to talk about issues, to help each other…I really think it was critical in forming who I became.”
Balderston used to walk from school every day at lunch, down to one of his dads bars to help out. He’d serve lunch, then eat lunch before heading back to school. “I used to say I served all my teachers beer for lunch,” he said.
That experience of being in the bar with all different kinds of people is something that he really feels shaped who he became. “There were people who lived over my father’s bar, which you don’t see much anymore. In many ways it was a rooming house where my father took care of them,” stated Balderston.
There were people who had gone to Ivy League Schools, and then had a run of bad luck who ended up living there. “It makes you understand the vulnerability of the world, and that’s what made me a Democrat,” stated Balderston.
He believed that they were the party that was helping people. His parents were Irish Catholic and when John Kennedy was elected President, it was a big thing in his family.
Balderston said “I remember it well at five years old. I remember when Bobby Kennedy came through town twice. My mother and father let me skip school in fourth grade to go down on Main Street and meet him. I shook his hand twice and it was a big thrill for me. I think that’s what drove me into politics and I never looked back.”
That experience led him to run for senior president in high school and to get involved in city government. “I helped on every campaign in a nerdy way, opening up the headquarters in Little Falls. Mary Grabinski, my social studies teacher had a huge impact on me, on realizing that you had to go to college. My father graduated 8th grade, my mother graduated high school. They were very insistent that I go to school,” he said.
Balderston also thinks that Little Falls provided what a lot of other towns were not providing in this day and age and that’s real diversity. “I grew up on Arthur Street and you had twenty five or so houses. You had people who spoke German, Slovak, Italian, Polish, and probably multiple other languages. Not only did you learn the language, but the diversity of these cultures as well.”
On Christmas Eve he’d go up to one house and have a typical Italian fish festival, then go down to another on another holiday and have Polish or German food. “The irony is in a town that a lot of people had viewed as kind of not diverse, it was very diverse ethnically,” he said.
Balderston believes that there was not only ethnic diversity, but income diversity that was important in his growing up here. “You went to school with the Police Chief’s kid, the factory workers kids, the merchants and postmaster’s kids. You had all of these different occupations and when somebody got laid off in a factory, there were people in close proximity that would help each other.”
He believes that one of the dangers in the country now is that we’ve become segregated by income. “I see that in the Washington Metropolitan area where I am. It’s a different diversity – a different segregation. Growing up, that was extremely powerful…seeing that diversity.”
According to Balderston “Growing up in a small town, you learn trust very quickly because you knew everyone in town, or you knew their family.”
He remembers going to see the movie Easy Rider at the Rialto Theater when he was fourteen and going up to the box office where the woman said “do your parents know you’re going to see an R Rated movie?” He quickly turned away.
“You knew you were being watched by many eyes, but in a good and caring way, not a bad way,” said Balderston.
These were the things in Little Falls that he felt had the greatest impact and were the things he loved most.
To this day, it’s important to Balderston to figure out how to fix problems… something else he learned from growing up here. In the bar, people would talk about their problems and someone would say “I’ve got a guy. I’ve got a guy who’s got snow tires, I’ve got a guy up at Caroga Lake, you can take your family up there for a week, I’ve got a guy who’s got the best Christmas trees in town,” he said.
It was a town where people solved problems and helped each other. Balderston said that you also “Learned how to argue. You weren’t shy about your opinion, which is another very important thing I learned.”
The other lesson learned was “You’ve got to stand up and you’ve got to speak up for yourself,” he said.
For anyone who wants to take the same path he did, Balderston says that you have to take advantage of what’s around you. “I feel like I never took advantage of the Adirondacks. I didn’t start going there until my 20’s.”
He also says that every place has assets, and those assets are people and that you should learn from them. “Learn how to make bread at the White Rose Bakery, go down and learn how the canal started, go over to Moss Island. At the time I was bored, but everywhere you live, there are things around you that can teach you wonderful things.”
Those things allow you to become comfortable in any surrounding and go into any environment. “If you can master Little Falls, and learn from all the people there, I think you’ll succeed anywhere,” stated Balderston.
In any place, there’s politics and Balderston says that it has gotten a bad name lately. “There’s always things to change in any community that you’re in and the only way you change them is through organizing people and debating it and respecting other people’s opinions and doing things. We did that in Little Falls. We started an ecology club before that was even cool.”
Balderston says that one of the coolest things he has done was to bring Hillary Clinton back to Little Falls twice. “She found out I was from Upstate New York and she didn’t know much about it, so she wanted me to give her advice on it.”
She told him that he’d told her so much about it, that she wanted to go there. “I’d have to say, that was one of the great fun things of my life. She went to Ann St Deli and we had probably 1,000 people outside. She came back later when she was a Senator and got to meet my parents and teachers. On that morning, all of my worlds just collided in Little Falls, with my boss and all of those people that I knew.”
Working in the White House was a great experience for Balderston as well. He met everyone from the Dali Lama, to Mohamed Ali, Austin Powers and Julia Roberts. “You realize that they all put their pants on the same way,” he said.
Balderston even got the chance to bring his parents into the White House to meet President Clinton in the Oval Office. “We were all walking out of the Oval Office and I looked back and there was my father, talking to Bill Clinton off to the side, giving him advice. I thought, ‘oh my God, what is my father doing?’”
Today Balderston has his own consulting firm in Washington DC called Balderston Strategic Partnerships because he wanted to get back into the public service side of things. “I represent only people I like and I try to help give them strategic advice. I’m helping a couple of universities globally and I helped start a polling company called Change Research.”
“I’m 63 and I say I’m lucky to have my Little Falls experience in big city Alexandria. My daughter and her husband live three blocks away with my first grandson. Life has been good. I get to spend most of my days helping people,” said Balderston.