Natalie Ondiak

September 22, 2008

Andrew Edwards and Jeff Fontas are 21-year-old college students and the youngest legislators in the country. Edwards is majoring in biochemistry at Worchester Polytechnic University in Worchester, Massachusetts, and Fontas is a political science and criminal justice major at Northeastern University in Boston. They were elected in 2006 to the New Hampshire state legislature representing their hometown of Nashua, NH. Their rise to elected office was aided by harnessing new technologies and has been chronicled in a new book called Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube & The Future of American Politics. They are active members of the netroots community and have started their own blog, Millenial Draft.

Andrew and JF talked to Campus Progress about the power of Facebook, bringing a fresh perspective to politics, and what they want to do when they “grow up.”

CP: How did you decide to run and what motivated you to become politically engaged?


: For me especially it was kind of like where these two separate veins in my life came together. On the one hand, I’d been really absorbed in national politics and thinking about what is going to happen with the Democratic party and the 2006 election. I think we both understood that something very big was going to happen. We weren’t sure what the scope of it was going to be but we knew that things would be changing. But we also kind of wanted to have a stake in what direction we chose to go in at the same time. We didn’t want to just sit back and watch it all happen. We wanted to make sure that we got it right this time and for us it was really our first time. So we just kind of dove right in when the opportunity arose. It was just where everything sort of connected for us and we saw ourselves actually have influence in helping shape what direction the country was going to take.

CP: What did the people around you think—your friends, your peers, people you met during your first years at college, your families? Was there skepticism or excitement or both?


: I think there was a certain level of skepticism. I think it came about because what we were doing was just so unorthodox. It wasn’t something that was traditionally done by young college students. Especially in New Hampshire—the average age of [state] representatives is 60 years old! So this wasn’t something that was expected and I think in that respect, the surprise led to skepticism until we actually proved ourselves and proved that we were serious about doing the job. The skepticism finally died down is when we proved that we were serious about the job and showed that we could actually do it—that definitely helped us out.


: I think there’s a broader skepticism we face because people didn’t feel like we “paid our dues” somehow. That’s one thing I’ve been noticing a lot with people from our generation in lots of different undertakings but especially in politics. You know, paying your dues is a measure of how invested you are supposedly. Who you owe, who owes you what—that’s the only thing people can use to quantify you. Otherwise, you are just an unknown quantity. We were two young people coming into it with political views that no one really knew. I think when we first got elected people weren’t really sure how we got elected, they weren’t sure if we were loose cannons, how loyal we were, how hardworking we were, what our motives were. A lot of people when we first got there kept asking us why we ran. Sometimes it was in an encouraging way, like we were doing a good thing. But a lot of other people just seemed to be perplexed and very skeptical and guarded.

CP: In your campaigns you both used blogs. In several interviews you have done since being elected, you have been featured in online videos. What role do new media play in democracy today?


: We really both used new media a lot. It’s the only reason we got elected in my mind. It was basically our Facebook campaigns. It’s funny because now they have all these applications on Facebook that are geared toward politics and activist causes and elections. But at the time, no one had really made the full connection yet so we were kind of pioneering it on an individual level at the same time that all of these other groups were trying to figure out how to massively market it to people. It was really awesome to be on the leading edge of that. I think Jeff actually had a larger Facebook group with more supporters [laughs].


: I think the only reason I had more supporters on my Facebook group was because Andy strictly chose to select his friends on Facebook that were New Hampshire residents as well; whereas I spammed everyone and asked them to join my group and support my campaign. A good chunk of them decided to and that was really helpful. One of the ways that we raised money was through an online poll through the Forward Together PAC which was Mark Warner’s PAC. Having that support group at our disposal was one of the leading factors that helped us get a donation to our online poll. Another thing that was great about it was that especially among college kids who don’t have a lot of time to go door-to-door for you or make phone calls—which actually through my group, I ended up having—but that wasn’t the primary reason for creating it. But it definitely turned on a lot of our peers onto our campaign and showed that we were serious. It helped us to communicate with them in a way we wouldn’t have been able to before. Those things were also very helpful to us.

CP: Being young, what perspective do you bring that other politicians do not have?


I think the most important thing is that we view so optimistically the opportunity of power of the political process to solve problems that we all face together. I think that optimism is really what shines through in the work that we do. I think that’s really one of the most important things that I’ve learned is that especially among young people, the optimism that they have in the political process to solve problems in just astounding.


: And it’s weird because sometimes people mistake that for being overly idealistic. They say: “When we were your age in the 1950s or ‘s or whenever, we were complete idealists and then we grew up and got realistic. And now we just go with the flow.” And we’re saying to them, “But look, we’re not taking the wrong approach to this because what we’re doing is working. We’re not doing things in the same way. We may be very idealistic but we’re not naïve either about what’s going on. We see a great urgency to make real change happen really quickly. With the problems that we’re facing, instead of going out and protesting and complaining about it on the outside, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to work inside the system to make change happen.” That’s one of the real differences that you are going to see in the way that people in our generation get involved.

CP: Will you run for office again? What do you want to be when you “grow up?”


: I’m not planning to run for re-election. I plan to go back to school and finish my degree and all that sort of good stuff. But I really love policy-making. I don’t know if I want to be on the front lines or doing research or advocacy on the sidelines or something like that. How you can use public institutions to better everyone’s existence. I think that it’s going to shine through in anything that I do.


: After finally getting what feels like this huge burden off of our shoulders that we have carried for the past few years, I need to just be a kid again. I don’t mean that literally, but I want to go to school and graduate and really figure out what I need to do for me. At this point in time, I’d be excited to get involved in politics again and actually serve and run for office again. I wouldn’t rule it out in the future. For the foreseeable future, I don’t know if I want to go to graduate school and study public policy because going to graduate school has always been a goal of mine. And now a new opportunity has presented itself which really falls in line with the greater message we have been talking about with getting young people involved. I was just watching Barack Obama’s commencement address at Wesleyan the other day and he was talking about the Peace Corps and projects like Teach for America and stuff like that. I think there’s going to be a real call to service both domestically and globally for people our age in the coming years. I think my uncertainties about my future might sort themselves out for that. I very much look forward to doing something like that.

Natalie Ondiak is a Research Associate working with the National Security team and the ENOUGH project at the Center for American Progress.