Early life and education
Keene made a name for himself as chapter leader and eventually national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) while at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s. He supported American efforts to oppose communism and took a strong stance against radicalism on both sides of the debate, particularly the violent efforts to suppress discourse, which he found inconsistent with the basis of educational institutions as bastions of rational thinking and discussion.
After graduating from college, he ran for the Wisconsin State Senate in 1969 at age 24 in a special election to replace Frank E. Panzer who had died in office in August that year. Keene ran as a conservative and had Richard Nixon's endorsement, but was surprisingly defeated by Democrat Dale McKenna in a race to fill the traditionally Republican 13th district senate seat. This was the only time that Keene ran for public office.
Keene went on to become the southern regional coordinator for Ronald Reagan's 1976 bid for the Republican presidential nomination and national political director for George H.W. Bush's 1980 presidential campaign. He advised Senator Robert Dole's 1988 and 1996 presidential campaigns, and in 2007 endorsed Mitt Romney for president. He was then counsel at the Carmen Group, a lobbying firm based in Washington, D.C. Ronald Kessler once called Keene "one of the country’s most astute political observers", while Politico's Andy Barr commented that at the peak of his power he had been "counted as one of the few men with both the ear of Republican presidents and an ability to influence the grassroots."
Keene has stood with members of both major political parties to protect Americans’ civil liberties, although he is best known for his efforts on behalf of gun rights. He served as an envoy to the UN Small Arms and Light Weapons Conference.
In 2007, Keene co-founded the American Freedom Agenda (AFA), "a coalition established to restore checks and balances and civil liberties protections under assault by the executive branch." (In 2007, Keene resigned from the AFA.) He also co-chairs the Constitution Project's Liberty and Security Committee, and has said that "the right to appeal one's detention to an independent judge is a cornerstone of responsible, conservative governance." He has been critical of the Patriot Act, and has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to limit the effects of the act.
While Keene was Chairman of the American Conservative Union (1984-2011) he fought to allow the right-leaning gay rights organization GOProud to participate in the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Instigated by problems his son David Michael Keene was having in filing complaints while serving a 10-year sentence for firearms offenses during a 2002 road rage incident, Keene also had an unlikely collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union in a campaign to reform the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
He co-chairs the Constitution Project’s “Liberty & Security” initiative that has since 9/11 critiqued government security and surveillance measures in terms of their impact on individual privacy and constitutional rights.
Keene is a founding member of “Right on Crime,” a conservative criminal justice reform group.
In 2004, Keene received the Congress on Racial Equality’s prestigious Martin Luther King Award in New York, and in March 2012 was recognized by the bi-partisan Constitution Project in Washington as a “Champion of the Constitution.”
In 2004 Keene married Donna Wiesner, his third wife. He has five children, Tracey, Kerry, David Michael, Taylor, and Lisa.
- Kenneth P. Roesslein, State Democrats Add to Their Election Arsenal, The Milwaukee Sentinel, January 8, 1970
- Ronald Kessler, David Keene: Romney Is Likely GOP Candidate, Newsmax.com, 13 Jun 2011
- Andy Barr, The complex legacy of David Keene, Politico.com, February 13, 2011
- "Inside Politics:Liberal applause" The Washington Times, 21 March 2007
- Ronald Kessler, David Keene Takes Over the NRA, Newsmax.com, March 28, 2011
- David Crary, Law curbing inmates' lawsuits questioned, USA Today, February 13, 2008