When Young People Run For Office
In her last semester at the University of Vermont in 2008, Kesha Ram announced her candidacy for state representative in the Vermont House of Representatives.
As president of her student body, Ram was already representing a greater number of people than she would in the job she was running for: Her district would have about 8,000 residents, half of them students, while the University had almost 10,000 undergraduates.
Ram, who is now 24, says that campus network provided a great resource her election. Tapping into her constituency, she found classmates who had the time to commit to getting her elected. “My campaign manager was a junior, and our four campaign interns were all sophomores, doing it for class credit,” she says. “We were this team of young women… people later said it was one of the most dynamic campaigns they’d ever seen in Vermont.”
Ram is just one of many young people who have found the confidence to run for office, while using fresh perspectives to their advantage and overcoming unique challenges.
Getting into politics for the issues
Today’s generation of young progressives has come of age during a time when the issues they care about go sorely neglected. During the George W. Bush administration, “there was a great sense of despair,” says Ram.
From their idealistic perspective on the outside of mainstream politics, young activists may consider a local political career to be too much of a compromise. Yet participation in mainstream politics is usually the only way to effect policy change. “If you care about bike routes, that’s the city council. If you care about tuition, that’s state policy,” Ram says. But she points out that once young people realize how important policy is, they often “don’t know who to turn to for political representation.”
In many ways, college students are perfect candidates for political office. “We’re natural organizers,” Ram says. And there are fewer things holding students back, she adds: “I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have kids.”
In Vermont’s “citizens’ legislature,” officeholders work only five months out of the year and don’t receive health insurance or other benefits. The other seven months of the year, Ram works as a legal advocate for an organization that helps women who are victims of domestic violence. “It’s a wonderful complement to my work in the legislature.”
Ram’s experience is like that of other young candidates. While still in college in Middletown, Conn., state Rep. Matt Lesser (D-Durham/Middlefield/Middletown), 27, had been asked to run for mayor against an experienced Republican incumbent by local Democratic activists who were impressed by the work he’d done registering voters.
“I was flattered,” Lesser says. “But I thought about it and I realized I didn’t have a chance.” He asked the group if they had anything less ambitious, and he ended up running for and winning a seat on the city planning and zoning board in 2007.
Lesser’s experience on the board eventually led to an opportunity to challenge a conservative state representative. His opponent had, among other things, opposed giving emergency contraception to rape victims at local hospitals. Lesser says he had at least one friend who would have benefitted from such a policy.
Besides going up against an incumbent, college-age candidates have other odds stacked against them: Most people running for office for the first time are lawyers or business owners or have already worked in party politics for several years. While their youth provides them with flexibility and a fresh viewpoint, college students still face significant barriers when it comes to asking for votes and, sometimes more important, asking for financial contributions.
“Because they’re young, they don’t have staffs and they don’t have money,” says Raquel Simon-Petley of the Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network, a branch of People for the American Way which helps progressive politicians from ages 18-35 coordinate and acquire the skills necessary for campaigning and governing.
YEO has more than 600 members, and campaign financing is a big obstacle for many of them. For some luckier candidates, however, campaign finance reform victories have given them a foothold: “We have a fabulous public funding system here in Connecticut,” says Lesser. “Instead of dealing with funders, I could spend time persuading voters.”
Gaining the community’s trust
Alejandro Bejarano’s family had lived in tiny Wellton, Ariz., for decades. When two city council members that he admired announced retirement, he says he “got nervous about where the town was headed.” At 18, he ran for a seat on the city council.
Bejarano had always been interested in local politics. He was concerned about protecting Wellton’s water supply, and wanted to see more walkable paths and recycling in the “little town” of about 2,000 people that his grandparents had immigrated to. His familiarity with the community meant that he didn’t do as much door-to-door campaigning as he thinks he “should have.” Instead, he says, “I wrote a letter outlining my platform that got sent to everyone in the town.” Still, Bejarano won by two votes in the primary and ten in the general election.
Bejarano’s experience is an exception, however, since college students are often seen as outsiders in their new communities, and have to work harder to prove themselves to the voters.
Proof of this lies with Rep. Ram, whose unusually cosmopolitan background and out-of-state origins forced her to rely on the connections she’d formed with the Burlington community as an undergraduate. She thinks that college students who want to run for office when they graduate often don’t get involved in the community early enough. Now, she says, her constituents tell her, “If you’re crazy enough to survive our winters, then you’re crazy enough to work here.”
And Rep. Lesser spent time as president of the College Democrats of Connecticut, organizing a voter registration drive that he claims increased turnout at the University of Connecticut by almost 700 percent, an accomplishment that got a lot of attention from other activists in the state. But Lesser says that much of his success in convincing his community to vote for him came because of, not in spite of, his youth, “There’s no way that people would have come to our campaign offices if they couldn’t identify with me.”
Dealing with the doubters
When calculating his odds of winning a race against the Republican incumbent, Lesser says, “I ran the numbers and I knew he was beatable.” But he also knew that his age would make him susceptible to attacks on his experience. “I was a punk kid running against someone who had been around forever. This guy was in the Nixon White House.”
Lesser got the state’s House Democrats to target the race, and weathered the attacks on his age. “This guy did what you would expect, attacking me for being young and inexperienced. Because of my resume, I was beneath him. But the voters took me more seriously than he did.”
Voters aside, for candidates in their early 20s, it can seem like many in the political establishment flat-out oppose the prospect of young people running for office.
In 2006, Roy Paul, then 19, ran for the school board that oversaw the high school he had just graduated from in Middletown, N.Y.
“I had a stake in education in the community,” he says. At a school board meeting he attended before the election, he says he was pulled aside by a school board member who told him not to run because of his lack of experience. “They got a grandmother who had custody of her grandkids who attended the school to run against me. Little did they know the power of a grassroots campaign.” He won the race and became the youngest school board member in New York.
Young candidates have a perspective on issues that older candidates sometimes don’t have. One of Paul’s accomplishments on the school board was lowering the length of terms from 5 years to 3, arguing that longer terms lead to complacency.
In Tacoma, Wash., 24-year-old Anders Ibsen is similarly emphasizing accessibility and “direct democracy” in his current campaign for city council. When he was 22, Ibsen, a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., ran for a seat on the local conservation district board, paying his campaign workers with pizza and beer.
“There is no silver bullet,” says Ibsen, when it comes to campaigning. He doesn’t see a candidate’s youth as a particularly large barrier: “People are much more willing to accept young candidates than you might think.”
And ultimately, the biggest barriers to young people running for office might just be the confidence and know-how to do so. Before she won her election to the Vermont legislature, Kesha Ram did what many politics-oriented young people do: She interned in Congress.
There, she says, “I met a lot of young women who felt like they needed to be asked, they needed a lot of encouragement and they started off their careers later.” In her case, getting started in politics early has proven to be the right move.
Across the country, young people are running for office and winning races against longtime incumbents. When they win, it’s by using the organizational resources available to them as students, and by taking local community service seriously enough to gain voters’ respect. They do it because they recognize that if you don’t feel represented by your government, the only solution sometimes is to run for office yourself.
This post was originally published by Campus Progress.