Carson aide returns to the halls where he met Mandela

It was the summer of 1990 when a 12-year-old Justin Ohlemiller came to Washington from his home in Muncie, Ind., to accompany his aunt, who worked in a Senate office.

During some downtime, he went to visit his House representative, then-Rep. Phil Sharp (D-Ind.), but the congressman wasn’t in his office. Ohlemiller glumly started back toward the Senate. But the youngster was in for a surprise.

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“As I leave Sharp’s office, I see these big men with black coats and sunglasses walking down the hallway, and they’re telling all of us to move to the side,” he recalls. “And sure enough, in between these huge Secret Service men comes this little man. It’s Nelson Mandela.”

Ohlemiller went right up to Mandela and shook his hand.

“It was kind of an out-of-body experience and pretty great,” he says. “I could tell he was a very important man, but I don’t think I grasped exactly how important.”

Ohlemiller still travels those halls as the newly promoted district director for Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.).

Ohlemiller was previously Carson’s intergovernmental affairs and communications director, based in Indianapolis. Now, as the district director, he will make monthly visits to Washington for meetings with his boss.

Ohlemiller considers his new position yet another opportunity to stoke a passion for local public service that started after college. He graduated from Butler University in 2000 with a telecommunications degree and thereafter became chief spokesman and press secretary for former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (D). He rose to become Peterson’s deputy chief of staff before eventually joining Carson’s office.

Ohlemiller says working for Carson is, in a way, his family’s history coming full circle. His father worked for more than 30 years as the deputy commissioner in the Indiana Department of Correction. Through his father’s stories about work, Ohlemiller became familiar with issues relating to federal offenders, corrections facilities and crime.

Carson has also shown an interest in those issues, last year introducing legislation to provide assistance to people released from prison so that they don’t return.

 “I was talking with my father about the act, and we were commenting on how these are some of the things that needed to be done long ago for the correction system to improve,” he says. “Now Congressman Carson is working to change it, and he definitely gets these issues.”

Family remains important to Ohlemiller, who turns 32 on Wednesday. (He said he’ll celebrate by working.) He often turns to his wife and 5-year-old stepdaughter to help him decompress after a long day at the office.

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“My wife will tell you that I don’t unwind very well,” he says. “It’s really been a juggling act, but I do find the time to be with my family. And if there’s any person who can certainly add perspective to my day and what’s really important, it’s my stepdaughter.”

He also keeps the lessons learned from his father at the fore of his mind.

“My father was always involved in public service throughout my entire life,” he says. “And I think the thing I learned from him was that it doesn’t always pay that well, but it’s a great career to be able to impact people every day.”