Right now, there are no federal legislators under the age of 30 serving in Congress — a fact that must make it difficult for the government to best represent the newly crowned largest generation in America. Women only make up 19.4 percent of Congress. On top of that, 83 percent of millennials say they don’t trust Congress at all. Add to those facts the many opinions about environmental policy, gender equity, and other issues that young people have, and you get the recipe that led Erin Schrode to announce she was running for a House seat at home in Marin County, California.
You have to be 25 to serve in the House; Schrode, who co-founded the environmental nonprofit Turning Green with her mom back when she was 13, just made the cutoff. If elected, the Democratic candidate would be the youngest member of Congress in the nation — and the first woman under 30 — to ever serve in the House.
Schrode — whose voice gets increasingly passionate the longer she talks about the race, speeding through each sentence so she can pack in more ideas — began her campaign thinking there was no chance she could win. The odds are still mighty long. Incumbent Jared Huffman has the support of the Democratic Party and most local officials, and is already a pretty progressive politician representing the reliably liberal district. But for Schrode, winning isn’t the only end goal of her campaign. If she can get voters or her current representative to talk about the issues she and her peers care about — and maybe show other twentysomethings that they can run for office too — that’s also a success. We talked to Schrode on the phone about the California primary on June 7, what campaigning has actually been like, and how you stop people from lamenting about the fate of millennials.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So the past few months, you’ve basically gotten a condensed crash course in campaigning.
Erin Schrode: I didn’t go into this campaign naive, but I had no idea what the day-to-day of being on a campaign trail really looked like. It’s exhilarating and exhausting, and I feel like it’s the most important work I’ve ever done.
Do you think part of the reason that things seem to be going well is that you’ve been organizing for more than a decade and you’re a familiar face in your district?
Schrode: Yes. There’s some real pride seeing a young woman who was born and bred in Marin, California. ... A woman came up to me and said that she held me as a baby, that she was my father’s student when she was in high school. And she now has two kids of her own in middle school. And she was so proud that I was on this journey, that her children could see that someone from down the street could take these steps.
I understand that "25-year-old woman seeking to become youngest person in Congress" makes headlines. I get that; it’s newsworthy. But I didn’t just wake up and say, "Oh! I think I’ll run for office today." I’ve spent the last 11 years of my life dedicated to public service.
If you look across the board, at state government, in local government, it’s the same everywhere. There’s young women at hardly any of these levels. Why did you decide to run for the House instead of something at the state or local level?
Schrode: I’m a firm believer in the importance of local government. I’ve worked on county, state, and federal policy with our elected officials. In California, our local elected officials control the education system, the roads, and the county jails and that sort of stuff, but when I think about the issues that matter most to me and where I feel most informed, they have their focus mainly on the federal level. Environmental policy is one. Gender equity and women’s rights, too — paid leave, equal pay, and ensuring access to reproductive health care. Also issues related to human rights and foreign policy.
Also, we have a federal legislature that has never seen a woman under 30 in it. Period. There is nobody under 30 of either gender in it right now. That has to change.
... One thing I haven’t spoken about much is the fact that, yes, there are all these amazing organizations that encourage women to run, [of] which I am a huge supporter because we do get shut down left and right, and we won’t ever have enough experience if we don’t ever begin. But those organizations won’t talk with me. They won’t meet with me because I’m challenging a Democrat. And that’s disheartening to me, to be completely honest. To see that when you challenge the establishment, when you go up against the status quo, even these organizations that are progressive and want to make female voices heard won’t engage in the race.
Have you talked to any women or elected young people about campaigning?
Schrode: Yes, I have.
Who has been receptive to your campaign?
Schrode: We sent emails to all the elected officials in our district at all levels. The response rate is dismal. I met with an amazing woman, a young city council member in our district. We went to lunch and she was wonderful, she was so excited by my candidacy. Well, I can’t talk about who she is, what she does, if she’s supporting me, because of her fears about her job or support from the incumbent. … I’ve reached out to a few other young members of Congress. A couple have said "Thanks for your energy, go forth," but nothing more. The youngest congressperson to date is a woman. Her name is Elise Stefanik; she’s from upstate New York. Elise’s chief of staff is the only person who has gone on record to talk to me. … People see it as a personal affront in some way that I would dare go up against an incumbent of the same party. To me, that is democracy in action. That challenge of ideals. That pushes our campaign forward, it pushes the incumbent’s campaign forward, it pushes the ideas forward.
Do you think having that wall between you and the Democratic Party framework has hurt or helped during this election cycle, when there has been so much pushback from young people about party politics?
Schrode: It’s definitely fueled me from the get-go. ... but it’s hard not to have the support of the party. Especially a party that is struggling as much as it is with young voters. But this is the year of the outsider. I can only hope that the energy behind our campaign, the [millions of] views on our first video, translates into action here in our district — the primary is rapidly approaching. But also, that another generation can become civically engaged, and realize we need to make our voices heard. There’s no alternative to our government. It’s one government we have. We can’t just create a parallel government. We have to become invested to better that which runs our country.
Young people don’t think any of the problems they care about could be solved in Congress. So how do you get them to care that you want to go to D.C. to try to solve these problems?
Schrode: The vast majority of the people have never seen a politician who understands what it’s like to be them. Who talks like them, works like them, sounds like them, fill in the blank. I graduated from college less than three years ago. I felt the burden of student debt. My friends will be dealing with that for decades. It’s a completely different experience from what people who graduated college 40 years ago experienced — which is about the average age of our elected officials today.
And women and gender issues — we’re 19.4 percent of Congress, yet make up 51 percent of the population. This idea of representative democracy — the people there better represent us, and they’d better understand the issues facing all of us. I don’t want a country run by 535 young women. But a few of us would make a world of difference.
I’m sure there is a frustration among young people that when they see coverage of politics, it is usually being condescending toward them and blaming them for not getting involved. Do you ever encounter condescension or surprise from people who see you out there campaigning?
Schrode: At first, it was called a publicity stunt that was all "me, me, me," and then people said, "What right does she have to run?" and "millennial, self-important, x, y, z." But we didn’t go away, and we’re putting forward concrete policy positions. And when you start talking to people about concrete policy positions, they can’t ignore you anymore. I also hear from … older folks all the time who say, "What, you’re 12 years old," and then I start talking to them and you can flip the script. That’s the power I have, to prove to people that the millennial generation is not this self-important, careless generation people say it is.
Besides talking about policies and solutions from the perspective of a millennial, you’ve also been campaigning like one — organizing on Facebook Live and making sure to Instagram and tweet much of your campaign. Was part of the reason for that showing your young followers what a campaign looks like?
Schrode: It was to show everybody what a campaign is like. I don’t think anybody has much of a clue of what it looks like to run for office. I’m a digital native. These are the platforms where I exist. It’s not something extra to post an Instagram, to Snapchat my day. And letting people in on this journey, that’s exciting! There are a lot of people who just aren’t that interested in politics, that aren’t reading the news. But they’re on Facebook, seeing their friends share our stuff. And maybe they’ll consider taking on a cause or, you know, running for office someday.
California has the relatively new top-two system, which is good for you because there is a very, very, very, very, very small chance that you’d get first place in this primary — but you don’t need to. You only need to beat two of the four people in the race to make it to the general election.
Schrode: We’re not shooting for first. We will be proud to come in second on June 7.
If you make it that far, how do you want to approach a general-election campaign?
Schrode: I want to stand up there next to the incumbent and give the voters a chance to make a decision. … I think ultimately our campaign has pushed all of this in a better direction. Especially for the incumbent. He put out a newsletter on gender equity a few weeks ago; I got it forwarded to me about six times in the first hour. That’s great! If I can push the incumbent in a better direction, push media to cover the issues that matter most to me, if I get people talking about what I see as relevant policy, then I’m a success! We need more of that.