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Millennials take city hall

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A surge of younger candidates may infuse local government with new ideas and insight

Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López, a 35-year old city council member who represents the 6th District in Detroit.
Courtesy Raquel Castañeda-López

Regardless of party affiliation, most Americans would agree that the 2016 election cycle was all-consuming to watch, and transformative in its impact. And, based on the attention shown recent off-year special elections, the country seems set for another political roller coaster in 2018.

Next November will be a gamechanger, regardless of the outcome. But while the spotlight will be on the House and Senate, a much wider, and perhaps over time, more consequential, change is happening at the state and local level. Millennial politicians are poised to take power in potentially record numbers, according to analysts and organizations dedicated to fielding young, first-time candidates. That could lead to big changes in city halls and local government.

“Young people are running to solve particular problems in their community,” says Ross Morales Rocketto, co-founder, along with ex-Clinton staffer Amanda Litman, of Run for Something, a group fielding progressive candidates under 40 years of age in down-ballot state and local elections. “They got mad about an injustice they saw, and see municipal positions are the ways to solve the problem.”

Already the largest generation in the country, millennials will be aging into political power during an election cycle observers predict will be a wave election, especially for progressive and Democratic candidates. Our federal government’s age bias—the average member of Congress is 60—isn’t as easy to correct, since contesting these seats requires more money and experience. But the opportunity for first-time candidates to win in large numbers on the local level means city government may be infused with new ideas and new perspectives from the most diverse generation in U.S. history.

The flood of eager, younger candidates who have contacted and registered with support groups and nonprofits suggest as much. Run for Something, which launched January 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration, had 1,000 potential candidates sign up the first week alone, and now has 15,000 nationwide committed to running for office (2,000 alone signed up during National Run for Office Day on November 14). Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports pro-choice female Democratic politicians, has heard from more than 22,000 women interested running for office in the next few years, half of whom are under 45. In the entire 2016 cycle, 920 women total approached the PAC. In November 2016, in just the days after the election, it fielded calls from over 1,000 women. The group has since knocked down a wall in its D.C. office to make space for a state and local staff that’s tripled in size.

Riding the wave

The shift in governing styles by a more diverse, digitally native generation, comfortable crowdfunding municipal projects or holding a press conference on Facebook Live, has already begun. Millennial mayors across the country—Erin Stewart in New Britain, Connecticut; Pete Buttigieg in South Bend, Indiana; Michael Tubbs in Stockton, California; and Svante Myrick in Ithaca, New York—have been elected (and re-elected), becoming political up-and-comers viewed as the future of their parties. Myrick won his second term in 2015 with 89 percent of the vote.

But 2018, already expected to be fiercely contested, and set to be super-charged by responses to the Trump administration, may be a catalyst that accelerates that transition. Republicans are fired up to have control of the federal government, and Democrats, especially young voters, feel outraged.

The tax reform plan currently winding through Congress, which cuts student loan funding and gets rid of graduate student tax breaks, has animated younger liberal voters, as have decisions to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and possibly curtail DACA. The record number of new, young, female candidates has tapped into anger and outrage over President Trump’s behavior toward women and the #MeToo movement. Alexandra De Luca, press secretary at Emily’s List, says a majority of the candidate sign-up sheets she sees mention Trump’s election, the push to repeal Obamacare, or other administration policies as catalysts for involvement.

The 2017 election results, says DeLuca, show the energy on the ground on the left. Virginia, where a number of first-time female candidates, many of whom are millennial, beat incumbents, will only influence more women to emulate its example. Turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds was up 10 percent statewide from 2013.

Accepting the dirty necessity of politics

The forces compelling more millennials to run for office don’t necessarily represent an idealist view of politics. Shauna Shames, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers and author of Out of the Running: Why Millennials Reject Political Careers and Why It Matters, studies millennial political engagement, and says in general, the generation shuns the idea of running for office.

“They’re not stupid or selfish, as some of the worst millennial stereotypes suggest,” she says. “They just don’t have a lot of faith and trust in politics, and have fairly low confidence that the organizations set up by their elders will work, often with good reason.”

Municipal and local elections, in addition to being the traditional starting point for political careers, offer politics minus some of the unsavory elements that turn people off: Races are cheaper to run, meaning more grassroots work and less fundraising and financial barriers, and often turn on everyday, universal complaints and responsive governance, meaning less of the partisan bickering that also turns potential pols off. Consider the trailblazing candidacy of Danica Roem, the first transgender person elected to the State House in Virginia, who ran on a campaign to fix local traffic problems.

“Filling potholes isn’t partisan,” says Rocketto. “Making sure school districts function isn’t partisan. These are bread-and-butter issues that impact a voter’s daily life.”

“I know what it felt like to be in those neighborhoods,” says Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López. “For me, it’s important to be able to elevate their voices.”
Courtesy Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López

New faces and new values

As millennials who already serve in local government have shown, new perspectives and a more diverse government make a difference. Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López, who represents the 6th District in Detroit, was just re-elected to a second four-year term in November. The 35-year-old knows she may not look like some people’s vision of an office holder.

“People see you as a young woman of color—what are you doing here?” she says. “My response is to work hard. I try to be transparent, have integrity, and find creative ways to get information to my constituents and voters. People may not agree with me, but I have a track record of being diplomatic, leading with integrity, and being objective and honest.”

Castañeda-López, who grew up poor in the district she represents, says that the most important thing she brings to office is perspective. Her generation, through technology, travel, and exposure to others, is more willing to work with people and collaborate, as opposed to being stuck on traditional values.

“The longer that you serve in these types of offices, the more you think to solve problems from the perspective of an officeholder and member of the government,” says Rocketto. “New people in office solve from the perspective of, ‘How do we make this easier for other members of the community?’”

At a time when income inequality, equality, affordable housing, and transportation have emerged as key local issues, that kind of understanding and empathy can make a big difference.

One of Castañeda-López’s proudest accomplishments during her first term was founding an Immigration Task Force creating the Detroit ID. A city-based identification card, it gives populations without state IDs, such as immigrants, the homeless, and those returning from prison, the ability to access city services, such as getting a library card, and helps them pay bills and open bank accounts. It’s the kind of initiative, she says, that comes from understanding.

“I know what it felt like to be in those neighborhoods,” she says. “For me, it’s important to be able to elevate their voices.”

Jacob Frey, the 36-year-old mayor-elect of Minneapolis. “Cities across the country have to step up and work together. It won’t just be Minneapolis. We need to work as a collective force of municipalities. This is on us.”
Courtesy Jacob Frey

Cities are the laboratories of democracy

In many cities, any newer, younger Democratic officeholders will ultimately be on the same side of many issues as established Democrats, who tend to dominate urban politics. But at a time when more and more Americans are moving to cities, and mayors seem to trip over themselves to attract young workers to stimulate the economy, and due to gridlock, Congress and statehouses seem locked in bipartisan battles, city politics are where many believe things are really happening.

“Cities are the laboratory of democracies right now,” says 36-year-old Jacob Frey, the new mayor-elect of Minneapolis representing the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “Cities have the platform and the power to experiment.”

The wave in 2018 may also mean big changes at local statehouses—Run for Something is fielding hundreds of candidates in these races—especially if the results in Virginia are any indication. This may tip the scales, meaning bluer statehouses, and less of the types of pre-emption battles that have led red states to restrict the activities of blue cities.

Frey also believes that cities will increasingly need to be creative, based on the policies being enacted by the Trump administration. The former city council member, who ran on a platform pushing more affordable housing, public safety, and an increase in the minimum wage to $15/hour, feels that if the federal and state governments won’t take on these issues, then they can at least let cities take the reins.

“Look at this ridiculous tax bill right now,” he says. “We’re losing low-income tax credits, which are significant portion of our affordable housing funding, and the proposed budget wants to cut community-development block grants. Cities across the country have to step up and work together. It won’t just be Minneapolis. We need to work as a collective force of municipalities. This is on us.”

Push to election day

As the election season starts gearing up, and candidates begin campaigning in earnest, many hope that the impact of 2018 goes far beyond one election. Many new, young candidates will become next in line for higher office and move up the power hierarchy. Others hope that the grassroots energy and commitment to solving local problems lead not just to a change of the guard, but a change in attitudes.

Earlier this year, tech analyst Ben Brown founded the Association of Young Americans, an nonpartisan advocacy group that works like the AARP for young adults. He says that over the last few decades, many different campaigns have come along promising to energize with the youth vote, such as the Rock the Vote campaign. But by focusing on voter turnout, it has often missed the potential of fielding candidates.

“For young people to have control, they need to be involved in everyday politics,” says Brown. “Running for office is one of the pieces that’s missing.”

Historically, says Brown, Republicans have done a much better job of fielding young candidates at the state and local level (a complaint leveled at the Obama era was that leadership didn’t do enough to build the party in statehouses and city halls). While a dominant narrative in politics right now is the resurgent liberal and progressive crowd, with many PACs and other candidate support groups springing up to support candidates, there are also many young Republicans entering the fray for the first time. Matthew Oberly, press secretary for the Young Republican National Federation, told Governing magazine that Trump’s victory has given young conservatives energy to get involved and engaged.

According to Frey, all this activity signals a new sense of urgency for the younger generation. For him, Minneapolis, and other cities, functions best when many different ideas, perspectives, and, yes, ages, are at the table working together. If more candidates from his generation keep winning, we may just see a new generation take a seat.

“I used to say, half jokingly, that it’s hard to get 100 young people to vote, but 20 of them can change the whole world,” he says. “They’re voting, and in large numbers. This is exciting times.”