Can’t Drink, Can’t Smoke, But They Have Our Vote: America’s Youngest Elected Officials1
By Aydrea Walden
In KoldCast TV’s fresh satirical comedy Mr. Mayor, 18-year-old Purlie Judson is elected mayor of his small Georgia town. He soon realizes his local government co-workers are far more immature than he is, even though they were in office while he was still wrapping his head around the idea of leaving his blankie at home. It’s not long before Purlie asks himself and those around him willing to listen, “What the bleep did I get myself into?”
Trailer for Mr. Mayor
If the idea of somebody running for office who’s not legally able to toast their own election victory sounds like pure fiction, we have news for you – Purlie has company. For the majority of state and local positions of public office in the United States, the age requirement is only 18. In fact, almost 5% of all elected officials in our country are between the ages of 18 and 35. The implication is that a growing number of individuals, responsible for deciding the course of entire jurisdictions, have little experience making decisions for themselves.
Politics is generally thought to be the domain of older and wealthier – not for those scrappy young hustlers barely out of college. What is it about these Generation Y standouts that warrants their power to serve older and presumably wiser constituents? We found that while every one of these young go-getters has their own unique story, there are common threads among them.
Lack of Representation Made Them Want to Represent
While Congress is still overwhelmingly white and male, minorities and women constitute a large part of this new crop of young representatives. Their demographic actually mirrors the diverse makeup of our country more accurately than the politicians currently in office.
- Alisha Thomas Morgan saw a diversity deficit in her local county’s legislature and decided to take action. She made history as the first African American woman elected to Cobb County, Georgia’s House of Representatives at the ripe age of 23. Morgan’s been featured as a standout black female leader to watch in Ebony magazine, AOL’s Black Voices, Essence magazine, Marie Claire magazine, and The New York Times. Not to mention a speaking tour that reached students at Harvard and Yale Universities. Oh, and she wrote and published a novel: No Apologies: Powerful Lessons in Life, Love, and Politics.
- Carmelo Garcia and his family were victims of arson when he was just nine-years-old. As a Hispanic citizen growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey, he witnessed many other Hispanic families victimized by similar crimes. Advocating for minorities fueled his drive to run for public office, and at age 26, Carmelo was elected to the Hoboken Board of Education. In his new post, he pushes for increased opportunities for advancement for minority students.
- At 28 years old, Evan Low is a wise man, wise enough to currently be running a strong campaign for a seat on the California State Assembly. His platform is founded on his diversity as an asset to his leadership skills. When Low first ran for Mayor of Campbell, California at age 21, people wondered if his age, ethnicity (he’s Chinese-American), or the fact that he was gay, would prevent him from understanding the more traditional community’s needs. After losing his first election by just 1%, Low ran again two years later and won. In office, he was instrumental in balancing the city’s budget, pushing green legislation through, and holding “mobile office hours” online. In 2010, The Silicon Valley Metro newspaper named Evan one of their “Top 25 People Who Will Change Silicon Valley.”
Before Becoming The Man, They Fought Him
Many of today’s young elected officials were frustrated with political systems that seemed to work against their best interests. Rather than complain about the problems and add to a general sense of hopelessness, they decided to become part of the solution.
- When applying for college as a high school senior, Carmelo Garcia was told by a counselor that he did not, in fact, know how to write a simple essay, something he assumed he’d been taught correctly over his 12 years of public schooling. “I decided in 2001,” Garcia explained, “that it was my mission to make sure no student experienced what I went through to get an education.”
- Igor Tregub was in the middle of his final semester at UC Berkeley when an eviction notice came out of nowhere, giving him just two weeks to find a new place to live. The episode was stressful and so aggravating that it prompted Igor to run for the City of Berkley’s Rent Board Commission. He now works to protect tenants like himself from questionable landlord practices and inform them of their rights.
- Prior to being elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature, Carl Sciortino worked as a research manager at a community health center. As a private citizen, he unsuccessfully lobbied lawmakers against blocking marriage equality legislation. Sciortino decided to take a stronger position on the issue by running for office, defeating a 16-year incumbent who was against same-sex marriage. Carl is a founding member of the Young Elected Officials Network, serving as State Director of the organization for two terms. The group brings together elected officials under age 35 to share their ideas for community building based on American values.
They Embraced Their Roots – Their Grassroots
Graduating from high school or college usually leaves you with a hearty pile of debt, and raising money as a candidate with little to zero experience in office is hard enough. Without the warchests that incumbents or successful businesspeople have to work with, young politicians had to get creative.
- At age 25, Vermont State Representative Rachel Weston realized she could make a larger difference in her community by stepping into a high-profile leadership role rather than continue her work with non-profit organizations. Though the odds were stacked against her, Weston met face to face with more than 1,000 residents in her district at their homes through knocking on every door that she could find. She was able to personally register more than 500 people to vote – and celebrated their victory by throwing them a party featuring local bands.
- As a teacher, Jeremiah Grace, age 24, taught his students an unconventional lesson in politics. He allowed them to canvass their community in order to raise awareness for his campaign for the Elizabeth, New Jersey Board of Education. Their efforts paid off, allowing Grace to break a ten-year stronghold and became the youngest member to be elected to the board. The question on some peoples’ minds is whether those students’ work essentially bought his votes in exchange for higher grades! We’ll give it to him.
They Stand Out as Strong Individuals by Working Well in Groups
For those who find success early in life, a common pitfall is falling prey to your ego without giving credit where credit is due. These young politicians are too shrewd to ignore the people who’ve helped them along the way. They understand that lasting success involves maintaining a strong support system of problem solvers.
- After losing her first election by just 24 votes, Connecticut Alderwoman Gina Calder continued previous work providing outlets for her community’s disenfranchised youth. Appreciative parents recognized her dedication, and two years later, voted for her to a win in the Aldermanic election. Calder brought local business, political and community leaders together to create an organization that provides a support network for young African-American men.
- While Andrew Gillum was not the first African-American to be elected to the Tallahassee City Commission, at age 23 he was the youngest. Commissioner Gillum developed the Digital Harmony Initiative, a program that coordinated local businesses with education and civic leaders to provide computers, Internet service and educational software to a struggling middle school. Recognizing the shifting tide towards younger political representation, he conceived the Young Elected Officials Network and grew it, together with Carl Sciortino, to over 500 members today.
Aydrea Walden, a former news reporter, has also written for Nickelodeon, NBC/Universal, Hawaii Film Partners, Highlander Films, the Now Write! Screenwriting book series, Improv Olympic, The Second City Los Angeles and Disney. She regularly performs sketch and improv comedy and runs the satirical blog, The Oreo Experience, about her life and times as a super white black person.