Eric Ulrich, Mitt Romney's man in New York City, has photographs of two presidents hanging above his desk in Ozone Park, Queens. The two leaders represent vastly different philosophies, but they have long been two of Ulrich's personal heroes.
John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, two Irish Catholics, he told me (though Reagan was actually a Protestant), beaming up at the framed portraits. They're two very inspiring figures with interesting stories.
Ulrich, 26, is a Catholic Republican himself. But as the youngest member of the New York City Council he has supported living-wage legislation and other progressive measures, staking out a center-right slice of the electorate similar to the one courted by Romney, whose campaign chose Ulrich to be its New York City chairman in November.
I'm very independent. They never know how what I'm going to do voting-wise. I'm like an independent Republican, he explained.
And as Romney did when he was governor of Massachusetts, Ulrich has found a way to get elected as a Republican in Democratic territory by treading that border between red and blue. These similarities come together with his fresh face and thick black hair to create the perfect guy for the tall task of attempting to sell New Yorkers on Romney.
I sat down with Eric Ulrich on Jan. 13 and discussed his ambitions -- both for Romney's campaign and for his own career -- and the reasons he has chosen to side with the assumed front-runner in this year's contentious primary.
Ozone Park, a working-class neighborhood emerging from nineties-era racial struggles, takes about an hour to reach on the A subway line. A brisk five-minute walk along a windswept, desolate stretch of the neighborhood where Ulrich grew up and still keeps his home brought me to his street-front office.
The door was locked when I arrived, and the man who answered the door informed me that it was barred to allow Tiny, Ulrich's toy Yorkshire terrier, to run free.
The waiting area has the look of a patriotic medical office, replete with two struggling house plants, a magazine rack and New York and American flags on metal stands.
I wait about 10 minutes for the councilman to return from the deli and he takes me into his spacious office, the walls of which are covered in various certificates and plaques, the presidential photos, and a shot of Ulrich meeting Pope John Paul II. A table holds two large sculptures of eagles and his desk features a bowl of individually wrapped York peppermint patties.
Do you mind if I eat? Ulrich asks me before sitting down, and I oblige him. I first met Ulrich a couple of weeks before he won his council seat in a special election in 2009, so we shake hands and skip the introductions.
Ulrich proceeds to delve into how he, a lowly city councilman who graduated from Brooklyn's St. Francis College less than five years ago, was selected to head up the NYC machine of the candidate most likely to be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.
People kept saying I'm young and energetic and we need people like you to help with the campaign, he said.
They said, 'Eric, Gov. Romney needs your help. Would you consider heading up the campaign in the five boroughs?' Ulrich explained in between bites of sandwich. I said, 'I'm very busy with my job at the City Council, but in my spare time I can help.'
And that was it. Ulrich, who describes his role as that of Romney's New York City director/coordinator, is responsible for recommending local party members to attend the 2012 GOP Convention in Florida as delegates, helping to set up fundraisers, and getting the word out about Romney's candidacy.
Molinari, the former Staten Island congressman and borough president, said in a statement that Ulrich was chosen because he was simply the best man for the job.
Since being elected in 2009, Eric Ulrich has emerged as one of the rising stars in the Republican party, Molinari said. I am honored that he has agreed to work with me to ensure that Gov. Romney assembles a formidable organization here in New York City for our party's primary, and we return New York to the Republican column next November.
Romney and Ulrich met for the first time at a New York fundraiser late last year, and Ulrich said he was impressed by the candidate.
I never thought I'd get more than 30 seconds with him, but after the routine greetings I was kind of at a loss for words. I didn't know I'd get to have a real conversation with him, he recalled. When he spoke to me, he looked me right in the eyes and gave me his full attention.
Ulrich says he truly believes that with his business experience and strong values Romney has unique qualities that give him the best chance of beating President Barack Obama in November, and that he wants to do whatever he can to help him do so.
Reagan defeated an incumbent president: Jimmy Carter. Mitt Romney could defeat Barack Obama if gas stays at $4 per gallon and unemployment stays at 9 percent, Ulrich told me as Tiny stretched out above his shoulders across the tall back of his black-leather office chair. He's the most electable, and I think he'd give Obama a real run for his money. I think Americans should welcome that debate.
Our chat lasted a little under an hour, stretching well beyond the 30 minutes I was told I would have with Ulrich, and when the conversation came to a close, he insisted that one of his staffers drive me to the train station, as the wind had picked up speed. It was a quick trip, then I was back on the subway, staring out the window at the countless rows of drab, broken buildings that make up the town Ulrich hopes to sell on a Mormon Republican millionaire from New England.