America’s gerontocracy is a problem. These young candidates just might be the solution

Last week, while all eyes were on a presidential debate between the two oldest major-party presidential nominees in our history, I took a break and spent some time with the rising political stars of tomorrow. I came away inspired and convinced of the value of cultivating talent and building pathways for the next generation of political leaders. 

I was with about 100 elected officials, at all levels of government and all under 35 years old, who gathered in Washington for a national convening my organization hosted.  

This group of younger millennials and older members of Gen Z represents an under-reported phenomenon in American politics: the growing rate of young people running for office. In fact, the share of Americans age 18-25 seeking office has risen in the last 10 years, according to a recent Tufts University study, and more than 20 percent in that age group say they would run if they could (more on that later). 

The interest is especially strong among young people of color. The same study found that more young Black Americans were running for office than older Black Americans, and “not only do Black youth feel more qualified to run for office than previous generations, but they also are more likely to be interested in running than white youth.” The same was true for young Latinos. 

More young people are voting, too. Fifty percent of Americans 18-29 voted in the 2020 elections, up 11 percent from the previous presidential election year in 2016.  

These young leaders and voters are highly motivated by issues including climate change, reproductive freedom and police reform. And to them, it’s personal. One 26-year-old congressional candidate described it as “feeling betrayed” by an older generation that failed to solve big and obvious problems.  

I get it. Our elected leaders have known about climate change for a long time, and now it’s a life-threatening crisis. They’ve known about police brutality. They’ve known about gun violence. Maybe Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t grow up with active-shooter drills in school. But he knew schools had to start doing them; everybody did.  

The young public servants I talked to were passionate about fixing the problems they have inherited. Gun violence motivated 34-year-old Austin Davis, now the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, to start his political career. Poverty motivated 33-year-old former Stockton, Calif., mayor and anti-poverty activist Michael Tubbs. The murder of George Floyd motivated 27-year-old Minnesota State Senator Zaynab Mohamed.   

Thirty-four-year-old Anna Eskamani, now a Florida state representative, was inspired to make life better for immigrant families like hers. “I care deeply about economic mobility and that all families have a chance to succeed,” she said.  

I admire these young leaders’ commitment so much. And we need more of them. 

So, what would convince them to run? When asked, young people said money and encouragement would help a lot.  

We need campaign finance reform for a lot of reasons, but one big one is that we need to make it possible for everyday working people — including young candidates — to run for office.  

The cost of running hits young candidates especially hard. Since many of them have less money to begin with, they’re more likely to need to “dial for dollars” if they want to compete. Small-donor public financing programs, such as those enacted now in more than a dozen states, can help. 

So can raising the pay for the local offices, where younger candidates usually get their start.   

And so can giving young people the encouragement they need to run. “You’ll be told to wait your turn,” warns Zaynab Mohamed. We must counter that narrative.  

Young people who’ve chosen to run for office talk about helping other young people channel their passion and enthusiasm: helping them see that beyond protesting for causes they care about, there are options that will allow them to make a difference by getting in “the room where it happens,” as the song says. Options like getting elected to office or getting on a board or commission. 

The bottom line is this: Young people who are willing to serve in office are making a choice when it comes to our imperfect system and imperfect democracy: not to tear it down, not to deny that it’s flawed, but to work within it to improve it.   

We should respect that choice and start looking forward to our first millennial president.  

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