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State legislatures need more young people, but most can’t afford to run

Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.)
Greg Nash
Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) arrives to the Capitol for votes on Wednesday, January 11, 2023.

Last November, America elected its first Gen Z member of Congress: 25-year-old Maxwell Frost of Florida. Frost is a natural on social media, and his presence in the halls of power makes Congress feel a bit more relatable for Americans in my age group. 

Recently, the congressman-elect struck a nerve on Twitter when he shared his trouble finding an apartment in D.C. due to his accumulated debt and a poor credit score. That’s relatable, too. 

About five years ago, I sat in my college dorm room and heard President Obama tell the nation that if we were disappointed in our elected officials, we should “grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office” ourselves. I did just that and defeated an opponent who had been in office for longer than I had been alive.  

Nearly every week, I get a call from a young person who is thinking about taking the same leap of faith I did. I share the story of how I hired my college roommate as my campaign manager, and how we helped break a tie between parties in the state senate. I tell them that I had the chance to enact free community college, and today thousands of students are pursuing a degree that they otherwise would not have been able to afford. I talk about fighting to lower housing costs as the only renter in the senate, and writing a new law to electrify school buses, remembering the diesel exhaust from the school bus I rode not too long ago. 

But when young candidates ask me how to afford a campaign, I don’t have any good answers.

I won because of Connecticut’s public financing system that puts 22-year-old candidates on an equal playing field with 22-year incumbents. But most states don’t publicly finance their elections, meaning candidates turn to their personal bank accounts or wealthy networks in order to afford television ads, lawn signs, campaign staff and the myriad of other expenses that come with running a successful campaign. Those expenses lock too many people my age out of office.  

Our country needs young policymakers. Gen Z lawmakers know what it feels like to participate in a school shooter drill, so we fight with urgency for stronger gun regulations. We know how difficult it is to afford a degree in the 21st century, so we push for student debt relief. But most young people can’t afford to run for office, and almost none can afford to win.  

So how do we build a representative democracy that represents Gen Z? How do we empower young people to run and to win?  

The long-term solution is to publicly finance all campaigns, building a future Congress in which the majority of members might not be millionaires, and state legislatures that reflect the diverse population they’re supposed to represent. But I won’t hold my breath. Teddy Roosevelt endorsed that idea in his 1907 State of the Union Address, and all these years later only five states publicly fund their elections. 

The short-term solution is for Democrats to invest meaningfully in helping young activists become young policymakers. Party leaders should spend time getting my generation on the ballot, not just to the ballot. I recently formed a political action committee that raises money and sends it to Gen Z candidates in swing districts, and this year we supported campaigns from Texas to New York, South Carolina to Minnesota.  

But we’ve only scratched the surface. Anthony Eliopoulos, a 26-year-old 1st Lieutenant in the Ohio Army National Guard, ran for the Ohio State Senate but was out-raised by his Republican opponent 10 to 1. Sydney Clinton, a college senior in South Carolina put her life on hold to take on an entrenched incumbent, but she raised only raised about half as much as her Republican opponent. Meanwhile, Nabeela Syed is a 22-year-old community organizer who will make history as the first Muslim and South Asian woman elected to Illinois’ state legislature. Nabeela worked hard to raise at least four times more than her Republican opponent. Money shouldn’t matter, but it does. And as long as it does, Democrats need to work harder to even the playing field for Gen Z.  

As we gear up for the next election, the Democratic Party ought to invest in young candidates at every level of the ballot. Connect them with donors, deploy top surrogates to their districts and help direct national attention to their races. While helping Gen Z candidates raise money won’t solve every financial barrier that locks young people out of public service, it will go a long way in making sure that those who do take a leap of faith have a chance at success.

Will Haskell was elected in 2018 to represent seven towns, including his hometown, in the Connecticut State Senate. Just a few months after graduating from college, he and his roommate-turned-campaign manager unseated a Republican incumbent who had been in the legislature for longer than Haskell had been alive. His first book “100,000 First Bosses” was published by Avid Reader Press in 2022.

Tags big money donors campaign donations Campaign finance Campaign Fundraising campaigns corporate PAC money Debt gen z gen z voters Maxwell Frost Money money in politics Obama public financing State legislatures Teddy Roosevelt television ads television advertising young people Young voters

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