The Washington Post got a twofer with Kevin Huffman. The winner of the paper’s America’s Next Great Pundit contest is the ex-husband of DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. The two are still close and raise their two daughters together. They married in Ohio and divorced in Colorado; he moved here when she got her job.
“We didn’t want the Washington Post to know who he was,” Rhee says. “They might have seen it as a conflict.”
Says Huffman: “They had to know. It came out in little pieces in readers’ comments to my test columns.”
Beyond their shared commitment to education reform—he’s a top official at Teach for America—Huffman says Rhee’s views don’t influence his columns: “She has no idea what I’m going to write from week to week.”
Huffman, 39, won the Post’s inaugural attempt to replicate the American Idol approach. Beginning in September, 4,800 contestants pitched columns, editors judged them, readers voted on their favorites.
On November 23, Huffman won with 4,622 votes over runner-up Zeba Khan’s 4,062. He’s been writing his weekly column since December 11 at $200 a pop.
“It’s real work,” he says. “No joke. Future winners might want to take a leave of absence.”
Given his background, Huffman was more likely to be a man of the cloth than of the pen. His father, a Lutheran minister, was a missionary. Huffman was born in Scotland, attended elementary school in Hong Kong, and came to Ohio at age nine. He graduated from Swarthmore a confirmed liberal and joined Teach for America in its early days in 1992. He encountered bright men and women who wanted to change public education, including Rhee. He got a law degree, practiced in DC for a few years, and rejoined Teach for America in 2000.
The Post rolled out its contest last fall. “I entered on a whim,” Huffman says.
The afternoon of the competition’s final day, Huffman read a story about a Georgetown University sophomore who had advertised for a personal assistant. Intrigued, he started writing about the student at 9 pm. The deadline was midnight. “I pushed send at 11:57.”
During the weeks of writing and appearing on video, he found his voice in humor. Says Rhee: “He’s wicked funny.”
Huffman’s advice to aspiring pundits: “The Post has E.J. Dionne and George Will and Gene Robinson—it doesn’t need a less seasoned copy of them. It’s hoping for new voices.”
He has opined about happiness and housing, shopping and education.
“It’s freeing to be able to write in my own voice,” he says, “rather than for an organization.”
He usually speaks with Rhee at least once a day about their children. He has a steady girlfriend; Rhee is engaged to Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. Will Huffman write about DC schools? “I will resist the urge,” he says.
Huffman might be the first and last of the Post’s “great pundits.” Editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt says the Post has no firm plans for another round but adds: “I think it’s been a positive experience, and I’m inclined to give it another shot.”