Political engagement: the next generation

Devin Talbott, his brother Adrian and Justin Rockefeller have such privileged lives that they must be tempted to get on with them and let other young people get on with theirs unaided.

But they’re spending a good deal of time in an effort, which others have tried in vain before, to get their generation involved in politics.

Devin, 29, and Adrian, 25, are the sons of Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration and now president of the Brookings Institution. Rockefeller, 26, is the son of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

None of these young men rules out running for office someday, but all shoo it away as something far off and unlikely.

Shortly after the 2004 presidential election, in which groups such as Rock the Vote or Vote or Die poured in to get young people to the polls, the three had a new idea about how to reach the disengaged generation. For instance, they believed young people should be exposed to more than P. Diddy, Bruce Springstein and the Dixie Chicks.

Adrian was coming off the losing North Carolina Democratic Senate campaign of Erskine Bowles, President Clinton’s White House chief of staff. Devin was working in Manhattan at Lazard, the investment-banking firm, and Justin was working in government and community relations at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The brothers decided that young voters were being patronized. “Young voters need to be involved on a more substantive level,” Devin says. He wouldn’t turn P. Diddy away from an event, as long as a political figure such as Colin Powell was there, too.

“Politics can and should be fun, but ... they weren’t being addressed as adults. They weren’t being talked to about the issues,” Devin says.

The Talbotts, both Democrats, brainstormed at a wedding in Kansas City, Mo., and knew they had to get involved. They enlisted Rockefeller, a friend they had grown up with in political Washington. In February 2005, the trio launched Generation Engage at Kennedy Center, with Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as keynote speakers.

“The genesis was not based on a discontent with the outcome of the election,” Devin says. “We are building grassroots, local efforts, independent of national election cycles.”

The group now has offices in Washington, Raleigh and Richmond and is looking to open one in Manhattan.

Rockefeller says he doesn’t regret quitting his museum job. “I can see myself going to law school and business school later,” he says, “but for now this is a great experience and, I believe, really important work. Other groups are trying. I think we have the most effective approach to the problem.”

The problem? “Young people don’t see politics as a means to an end,” says Rockefeller, “but they are not apathetic. If I thought young people were apathetic, this project would be pointless. They aren’t apathetic. They do care.

“The problem is they feel detached from the process because they feel candidates ignore them. It’s one thing to have someone tell you to register to vote; it’s another to see for yourself why you should vote, why you should be involved in your community.”

The organization, still young at 11 months, is adamantly bipartisan and is not just another vehicle for young people ages 18-24 to register to vote, although that is part of the idea. It aims to teach young people who are not in college why they should care about the political process.

Generation Engage seeks out young people in their communities, at midnight basketball leagues, at cybercaf�s, hip restaurants and bars and enlists them in the cause. Then the leaders use their contacts to help expose their recruits to political officials at all levels — mayors, governors, ex-presidents and members of Congress.

The Generation Engage board includes the Talbotts; Rockefeller; Kate Edwards, daughter of former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.); and two relative unknowns from the New York financial world, Anthony Edson and Ali Samadi.

Devin works at the Cohen Group in Manhattan, founded by former Clinton Secretary of State William Cohen. Adrian lives in Washington and works for Generation Engage full time out of a converted garage in a Woodley Park home he shares with three roommates. Rockefeller lives in Manhattan and works full time for Generation Engage.

Growing up in Washington meant the three were shaped and groomed by successful politicians. They attended private schools — Maret and St. Albans for high school — and went on to earn degrees from high-end colleges. The Talbotts graduated from Amherst and Rockefeller from Princeton. They learned the ropes, quietly taking in what their fathers and their fathers’ friends were doing.

Rockefeller said, “I feel very lucky to have grown up in a house where around the table we talked about local issues and national issues. My father would talk about one particular bill decided at the national level, and conversations he had had with coal miners’ families and steelworkers’ families and how that piece of paper in Washington had very tangible effects on people’s lives in West Virginia. I got to see this connection. So I’m thankful for that.”

The group’s founders know their connections are crucial to their new enterprise.

“No one’s kidding anyone here,” Rockefeller says. “We do have some political connections, [but] this project would have ended a month or two after it started if the idea wasn’t strong enough to stand on its own.

“This organization is going to be around many, many years after [it’s] politically connected co-founders leave it. I don’t want to leave the impression that we are ever going to leave it. [What I mean is] it’ll be able to stand on its own.”

Adrian says the three have been criticized for “riding on their parents coattails” but adds, “That is past us. We have a good idea that this is working.”

Working, it is. Former President Clinton spoke at their fundraiser/video web chat last month at the Polo store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, at which 200 guests paid $300 a pop. Ralph Lauren’s son, David, was in the crowd. Last week, Sen. Edwards participated in a similar iChat event in Morganton, N.C. with former Republican Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer.

Getting Clinton to speak in New York wasn’t difficult; he was Strobe Talbott’s roommate at Oxford.

“Our personal circumstances give us the ability to draw notable figures to the podium,” Devin says. “There is nothing embarrassing about being able to get former President Clinton to come to an event.

“I agree that we are well-positioned to do something, but we’re trying to do something positive. It’s important to note that the high-profile events and people appearing for us are a small portion of our efforts. The lion’s share is the young people running our efforts on the ground.”

Another political figure who appeared for Generation Engage is Cherie Booth, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who came to a Manhattan reception at philanthropist Lewis Cullman’s home. Another forum featured Tim Kaine (D), Virginia’s governor-elect.

At a Washington event, Hagel and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) spoke to a crowd of well-dressed onlookers sipping wine and eating finger food. In the crowd were Strobe Talbott and Sen. Rockefeller and his wife, Sharon. Polo has given financial backing.

“Part of the problem is reaching as many voters for the fewest dollars,” Adrian says, “so we try to figure out ways to access a lot of young people at a limited cost.”

How much impact the group has is hard to quantify. But with notable speakers, three (soon to be four) offices and a growing number of employees, things are forging ahead. This summer, Generation Engage’s board pitched Apple about donating technology. Not three weeks later, iChat arrived.

The cost? No charge.