By Lily Herman
By age 22, Cheniqua Johnson had plenty of experience with political organizing, and held policy internships at the governor’s office and on Capitol Hill, but she’d never taken the step of running for office herself. Her time working in politics, however, left her with a feeling she just couldn’t shake: Many elected officials didn’t adequately represent the populations they served. Even worse, she realized, they often ignored the most pressing needs of the communities they served.
So in 2018, she filed to run for state representative in Minnesota’s District 22B, located in a rural southwestern part of the state, for one very big reason: “I ran to make it possible for more people after me to come in and do the same thing,” she tells MTV News of her decision to enter the race against a 15-year incumbent.
In doing so, she became the first woman of color in her State House district and the youngest woman in the state’s history to receive an endorsement from the Democratic–Farmer–Labor (DFL) Party, a major political party in Minnesota. She lost to the incumbent Republican Rod Hamilton in the general election, but she’s nowhere near done being involved in her district, and trying to create change for people who live there.
“I’m in an area of rural Minnesota, and even in rural areas, some people think it’s a very homogenous area [without] demographic changes. That’s not the case,” she says. “Our government doesn’t look like that or reflect that change.”
If you’re looking for change, you’d be well-served to turn to teenagers and 20-somethings, who historically have held older generations accountable to the messes they’ve been forced to inherit. In recent years, some young activists have led some of the biggest political protests, for issues like gun violence prevention and climate change; others have also focused efforts on elections and the polls. During the 2018 midterms, voter participation for Americans ages 18-29 reached 36%, an increase of 79% from 2014. And EMILY’s List, a longtime Democratic political action committee supporting pro-choice female candidates, and Run For Something, which helps young progressives run for office, are just two of the plethora of organizations that have seen a massive explosion of interest from young people who want to enter races.
Eighteen-year-old Hadiya Afzal decided to run during the midterm elections when she spent the summer canvassing for the Democratic Party in DuPage, Illinois. After talking to hundreds of voters, she saw some glaring problems with the DuPage County Board: Though the majority of the county voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Republicans held 17 out of the 18 board seats at the time, there were only three women on the board, and not a single representative was a person of color. At the time, women comprised over half of the county’s population; people of color also comprised one-third of the community. It’s unsurprising that Afzal concluded that the board didn’t accurately represent the town. Though she lost, it was in a close race: All four candidates vying for the two open spots were only separated by seven percentage points overall.
Afzal and Johnson aren’t the only young people who noticed the gross political underrepresentation of many communities. How stark is the problem? Before the 2018 midterms, only five congresspeople were millennials, making up less than 1% of all members; the oversight was particularly egregious considering that there are over 73 million millennials in America today, and Generation Z isn’t far behind, comprising of over 61 million Americans. Less than 20% of all congresspeople were women and people of color, and fewer than a dozen openly LGBTQ+ people had served in Congress in the nation’s entire history. Luckily, these numbers have started to shift: In 2019, 32 millennials were sworn in for the current session of Congress. On the local level, a record number of people under 40 were running for and getting elected to offices like city council seats and mayoral positions. There has also been a broad uptick in the number of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ Americans who have sought election on the local, statewide, and national levels alike.
Of course, even with all of the motivation in the world, running for office isn’t as glamorous or easy as it may sound. In a nation where the average age of a U.S. Representative is 57.8 years old and that of a U.S. Senator is 61.8 years old, trying to get elected as a teenager or 20-something presents its own set of unique obstacles, no matter the office they’re aiming for.
For 20-year-old Kat Kerwin, one of the most difficult parts of the race was finding monetary support, even for an election as local as the City Council in Providence, Rhode Island. In 2018, she decided to challenge incumbent Terrence Hassett, who served since the year Kerwin was born. Kerwin ran on a progressive platform championing affordable housing, strong public schools, and support for small businesses. She wanted to make sure her community felt like their representative cared about the big issues as well as the small ones — like reporting potholes and looking into trash dump sites.
“I thought Providence deserved better,” Kerwin tells MTV News. “I was inspired by the national political world being so hostile and also the feeling that [Hassett] had ownership over this seat that really belongs to everyone.” After her opponent didn’t turn in the necessary numbers of signatures required to officially appear on the ballot, she won her primary — and her seat.
But candidates can’t afford to campaign on ideals alone. “If you don’t have a job that allows you some sort of flexibility and you don’t have people who are essentially doing free labor for you, you can’t run,” she says. It’s yet another reason why millennials and Gen Zers often have a difficult time entering these races, especially compared to older opponents who may have established careers, a supportive networks to fall back on, and savings they can dive into. Considering that the average millennial or Gen Zer is struggling with $27,900 and $14,700 in debt respectively, running a viable campaign on top of simply trying to pay the bills is a tall order.
Another challenge every young person seemed to face on the campaign trail? The notion that they didn’t have a long enough résumé to run. Afzal said that during her first campaign, she ran into people who saw her age and lack of time in the political arena as reasons to count her out. But she wholeheartedly believes that being a young person would actually be an asset to the county board and would provide a new perspective and direction. Flipping the narrative on its head worked: “The older people I spoke to at their doors or at events were far more likely to support us and the ‘new blood’ we represented in the local electoral process,” she says.
Kerwin saw a similar problem for young candidates in terms of professional and extracurricular experiences that voters deemed “acceptable.” She ran for office while also working full-time for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence but had worked as a waitress while attending college in the months before her candidacy. While a service job is just as respectable as any other, she has a feeling she would have been treated differently if she was still waiting tables while running for office. “I think it would’ve lacked credibility for some voters, which is unfortunate,” she explains. “I was lucky that I got this paid organizing job that people saw as politically relevant. I think it’s hard for people to be seen as legitimate because of their age if they don’t have a super traditional job.”
Just because their races were difficult, however, doesn’t mean Johnson, Afzal, or Kerwin regret their runs. In fact, they hope to pave the way for more of their fellow Gen Zers and young millennials to do so.
While Johnson isn’t wading back into running for office for the time being, she says the experience gave her valuable connections; her race helped her land seats on two different boards in her area and she’s actively working on other campaigns to get other people elected, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds. One of her top priorities as she looks to the future is supporting other young people who want to get involved.
“I genuinely want more and more young people to start seeing their value,” she explains. “We are literally the pulse of [campaigns]. Campaign organizers for president average under the age of 40. We run state campaigns. We run city campaigns. We’re on the ground doing this work all the time. If we can do that, why can’t we run?”
And there are also plenty of seats to run for, many of which are hyper-local and often don’t require such a high level of finances, campaigning, or commitment. While some Americans don’t get into politics until later in life, that doesn’t mean it’s a status quo that younger generations need to accept. Nor does losing one race mean that person will be down and out forever.
After taking time off from the campaign trail following her 2018 loss, Afzal didn’t give up her dream of getting elected to a county board seat — and she’s running for a second time in 2020. “I started getting calls from former supporters and local allies about running again. I knew that the movement we began in 2017 needed to be carried through with,” she says. “In moments of history like these, we need elected officials who will campaign and work on issues, are guided by progressive principles, and understand the importance of intersectionality in all they do — and that’s what I will do.”
And all of the problems in the world — including the climate crisis, corporate greed, rising inequality — are the perfect fuel to get involved. In addition to joining protests and rallies, attending local community meetings, and voting in every election, running for office is an impactful way to make a difference.
“Young people should run for office because young people need to be the ones making the decisions that affect our lives, period,” Afzal says. “Identify an unaddressed issue, know your shit, get righteously mad, and run for a position where you can get stuff done.... The most important thing, however, is to make sure you’re unafraid of going to the mat for your principles. The willingness to make the argument for a tough policy is really important in ultimately convincing people.”
As for Kerwin, she’s now working on several issues for her ward, including getting a bank to open in her neighborhood to offset payday lenders and building a night-time economy in the area. Campaigning was hard, she says, but nowhere near as hard as actually being in office. Even so, she can’t wait to see other young people join her.
“I’ve felt intimidated before and I’ve felt harassed before by plenty of people who hold power over me,” she concludes. “But this isn’t going to change until we run and force the establishment to change.”