Purnell Swett High School Cutler Bryant, a shrewd political strategist
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a two-part story that began in the June 8 Robesonian. Find it online at https://bit.ly/CutlerBryant.
Just before he turned 14, Cutler Bryant attended a High School Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, sponsored by the conservative student organization Turning Point USA. A polarizing group even within the movement, Turning Point USA is best known for publishing a “teacher watchlist” that purports to expose “radical behavior” in the classroom. It also funnels money to sympathetic student government candidates in what founder Charlie Kirk called a “rather secret underground operation.”
During the kick-off speech, Nikki Haley, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, asked the students, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to quote, without quotes, own the libraries.” Hands went up in the air and the attendees clapped.
Then Haley, who is also the former governor of South Carolina, offered a diplomatic rebuke. “I know it’s fun and it can feel good. But take a step back and think about what you are accomplishing by doing this. Are you persuading someone? she says. “That kind of talk is not leadership. It is exactly the opposite. »
Later, Bryant listened as fellow students interrupt then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ sessions to sing “lock her up” — an echo of earlier calls at Trump rallies to sue Democratic presidential candidate Hillary. Clinton. (Bryant said he wasn’t singing.) Sessions laughed and repeated the line.
Those two moments, for Bryant, provided contrasting visions of what leadership might look like. He said Haley’s vision stayed with him. “While it’s fun in the moment, I think we need to depolarize and just be able to have conversations with each other without falling into insults and labels,” he said. “Of course, I’m not perfect in this area. Sometimes I will get carried away. (State the line about his “stupid” teacher.) “But often I tried to be aware of that stuff.”
Bryant was finally able to dive into the campaign in 2020, when he volunteered to help Olivia Oxendine, an associate professor of education at UNC Pembroke, try to unseat Democratic state Rep. Charles Graham. First elected to the Legislative Assembly in 2010, Graham has been an electoral powerhouse: he ran unopposed three times for re-election, then in 2018 beat Jarrod Lowery by 18 points.
Oxendine, a member of the State Board of Education, was nevertheless new to electoral politics. Bryant met her at a GOP policy meeting. “She made a little stump speech,” he said. “She said, ‘Please, I need volunteers. I begin.'”
After his speech, Bryant approached the candidate. “And immediately he’s like, ‘I can help you knock on doors… I can help you with your social media,'” Oxendine said. “I was just blown away. And I thought: Not only does he know what a campaign needs, but he’s just really quick. There was no lag time. Before the next day, we were exchanging SMS.
Bryant’s mother drove him to a McDonald’s parking lot a few days later, and he met Oxendine for a few hours door-to-door. It was just the two of them, he said.
At a house, “I met this young man, probably in his thirties. He had a gun next to him,” Bryant said. “I said, ‘I know how I’m going to get the vote of this guy. So I said, ‘I work with the Olivia Oxendine campaign. She’s NRA-approved, pro-gun.
“He said, ‘She supports guns? Is it NRA approved?
“I said, ‘Yes sir. Yes sir.’
“He said, ‘She has my vote.’ So I guess my political instincts kicked in.
During this campaign, Bryant made his first campaign strategy. When Oxendine suggested a particular community for canvassing, he said, he pulled out a detailed map of the compound on his iPhone and suggested they go elsewhere.
“She was so surprised that I had all this information on my phone,” he said. “She had us knocking on doors in heavily Democratic areas. And I’m like, ‘No, we need to maximize Republican turnout in this riding.’ She’s like, ‘OK, well, we’ll go.'”
In the end, Oxendine lost by five points in a district that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. But it was the closest anyone had come to stopping Graham, and the narrow margin encouraged Bryant. “I’ve always been interested in politics,” he says. “But I think it really intrigued me to work for campaigns.” Additionally, he gained a mentor in Oxendine, who urged him to start the Teenage Republicans chapter and signed on as an adult sponsor.
This election cycle, as he nears adulthood, Bryant is taking on more sophisticated roles as an analyst, graphic designer, and connector.
His primary focus has been Lowery’s campaign to win the State House seat that Graham left to run for Congress. (Both candidates won their May 17 primaries.) Not only did Bryant design Lowery’s flyers, but he also served as a volunteer strategist. “When you understand the data and the political geography, you’re able to articulate it,” Lowery said. “And that’s what Cutler can do. He is able to break things down for people in politics to understand. … It’s able to extract numbers and place them on a map, so you can visually see what’s going on.
Usually, Lowery said, candidates in smaller races have to analyze their own data. “Looking at the precincts, looking at the numbers, what to do, where to go — sometimes I’ve reached out and asked Cutler a question, and sometimes it saves a lot of headaches,” he said. “Honestly, I would rather call someone like Cutler, who is local, who is learning, who is gaining experience than, as a candidate, calling a consultant and asking the same question.”
Over the years, Bryant has come to know the Robeson County electorate not just as data, but as individuals as well. It uses these relationships to connect candidates to voters.
“He was helpful saying, ‘Hey, in this part of the county, in this neighborhood, he’s a good person you could talk to,'” said Britt Lanier, the assistant district attorney. “Every time we’re at the RNC [community center], he’ll come with me and be like, ‘Hey, it’s Leah Britt Lanier. She is a candidate for the position of judge of the district court. She will be on the Republican ballot in November. Just to give me the opportunity to introduce myself and get their name. And we can go from there.
Bryant’s latest project has been to map the districts of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners to determine which of the Democratic seats leans Republican. Based on that information, he urged some of the Democrats, who hold a 5-3 majority, to switch parties. “I emailed them all the information,” he said. “And I said, ‘Look, Robeson County is red fashion. If you encounter a strong Republican opponent in a few years, you will be dead on arrival. You’re going to lose.
Next step: college
Bryant is graduating from high school next month. He plans to work on the Lowery campaign this summer, then head 90 minutes north to study at Campbell University. “It’s a good Christian school,” he says, and a short drive from Raleigh if he lands a political job or an internship.
Campbell, who asserts in his mission statement “that all truth finds its unity in Jesus Christ,” has produced a good number of North Carolina politicians from both major parties. Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Republican Senator Buck Newton and five Court of Appeals judges are all law school graduates. Former state GOP director Dallas Woodhouse and former Democratic congressman Bob Etheridge attended as undergraduates. (As did Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman from California, whom Bryant recently called “disgusting” on Twitter. Bryant, who has a Lumbee mother and a white father, was angered by Swalwell’s statement that Republicans wanted prohibit mixed marriage.)
Bryant’s adult fans believe he too has a future in politics. “Cutler is going to make an awesome elected official,” Lowery said. “I can see it in the State House, in the State Senate. But he’s also going to make a great chief of staff – if he wanted to – someone. I can see him running the state, being presidential chief of staff, or running the State Department or something like that.
For his part, Bryant said he envisions starting behind the scenes: doing marketing and design for campaigns, or working as a chief of staff or communications director. Later, he said, he could run for office.
When he was younger, Bryant said, he imagined becoming president. This is not his ambition today. “You have to think realistically,” he said. “I’m not going to say I couldn’t be. I never know what God has in store.