Pennsylvania GOP chairman Rob Gleason had a good feeling about Donald Trump's chances to win the presidency when they were introduced at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 2015.
Trump had been invited to keynote the $1,000-a-head Commonwealth Club luncheon, one of many events that make up the annual mid-December Pennsylvania Society weekend. With 17 contenders for the Republican nomination, it was a controversial choice.
"A lot of people said I was a fool for doing it and he'd ruin the party," Gleason recalled. Jim Roddey, chairman of the Allegheny County GOP, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time that he didn't think Trump was qualified to be commander in chief. "I think people, in the final analysis, will realize he doesn't have the skills, the background, and the experience he needs to be president," Roddey was quoted as saying.
Gleason and Trump were introduced by Ed Cox, chairman of the New York GOP. "So Trump swirled into the VIP reception before the lunch, and Ed introduced me, and I was impressed by his sincerity," Gleason said. "In talking to him, I could tell this is it. This is the different guy we need in order to win this election in Pennsylvania."
Gleason was prepared to work hard for any of the Republicans in the race but wondered about their ability to connect with voters.
"We had a wonderful slate of candidates, but they were going to have a hard time winning Pennsylvania," Gleason said. "We really needed somebody to motivate the blue-collar, hard-working people of Pennsylvania. And, I thought, Donald Trump is it. I just recognized him as a winner."
Gleason, chairman since 2006, had long been hearing that people wanted change.
"They'd had it with the ruling elite in Washington, and the same gang going down there and doing the same thing every two or four years," he said. "Nothing changes for them. Taxes go up, business is not good, incomes are down. People are working two or three jobs just to survive. Things were just not working for Pennsylvanians."
Turns out the guy Gleason met at the Plaza was just what many people - Republicans, Democrats, and independents - were looking for. "He just caught fire," Gleason said. "It was unbelievable."
People bought their own Trump lawn signs, or made them - and Gleason even saw the candidate's name painted on the side of a barn. "They wanted to identify with this person," Gleason said.
Even in the spring, with the primary still raging, Trump drew a full house at a recycling factory in Monessen, a Democratic stronghold just south of Pittsburgh. "The place was packed for the rally," Gleason said, adding that one local official approached him, saying, "I've been a Democrat all my life, but I've never seen anything like Trump."
That energy never let up. At a Johnstown rally for 4,000, more than 6,000 showed up. In Hershey, the week before the election, 15,000 turned out. "I thought, this is O-V-E-R," Gleason said. "You know how you go to a ball game and you can feel if your team is going to win? I had that feeling."
And for all the talk about the Hillary Clinton camp having the stronger ground game, Gleason knew better. "After we lost with Mitt Romney in 2012, I got together with the staff and said, 'Look, we're on a roll here. We've done well with the state House, the state Senate, the Congress. We have got to reelect Pat Toomey in 2016, and we have got to win the presidency.' We have a full-time operation and strong staff, and a hard-working state committee."
He also had a close relationship of many years with Reince Priebus, the national party chairman, who is now the president's chief of staff.
"He and I had good continuity and worked together, and that really helped us win in Pennsylvania," Gleason said. "We made 61/2 million voter contacts, and not just for Trump, but for Toomey, and for the whole way down the ticket. We had a tremendous ground game."
Not all Republicans, including candidates, shared the chairman's enthusiasm for Trump. But Gleason says those campaign divisions won't prevent lawmakers from working with the president. "I don't think it will be a problem," he said. "Priebus doesn't look at it that way. I doubt if Trump does either."
It will take all hands on deck in order for Trump to deliver on his promises, especially on jobs. And Gleason thinks that work has already begun.
"As a man who lives in the middle of the 'Rust Belt,' Johnstown, Pa., I knew the time had come to change the course of our country to focus on those Americans who have struggled for years and years," Gleason said. "Donald Trump connected with them. His bold actions to date, such as buy American, build plants in America, build the wall, etc., have demonstrated to these forgotten Americans they made the right choice. I feel very good that I made a small contribution to making this happen."
Pennsylvania will benefit from Trump's efforts, Gleason believes. "There's no reason we can't be building ships down at the Philadelphia Navy Yard," he said. "There's no reason why we can't bring manufacturing back to Pennsylvania, why we can't get the Marcellus Shale pumping gas. It's always about the economy. Our party wants to create more opportunities for people to make money. That's what we need to do."
Gleason steps down as GOP chairman next weekend. He'll remain active in the party, helping the next chair fund-raise and organize for the next election.
"We're on top right now and to stay on top is very difficult," he said. "The Democrats are not falling asleep. They are going to regroup."
"But it's been a wonderful run, for both the state committee and myself," he added. "We had a lot of great successes over the past 101/2 years, and I can't think of a better way to go out than carrying the state for president for the first time since 1988."
Kevin Ferris is the Inquirer's commentary editor. @ferrisk3 email@example.com