When AJ Harris, 31, ran for a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives last year, he thought he was doing everything right. He had spent years forming connections with community members and building name recognition in his district, and he had policies he cared about, with a story to back them up. But he was unprepared for what came next.
Running against a primary opponent with more experience in local government, Harris’s campaign struggled. On top of facing personal attacks and harassment, he had to balance campaign work with a full-time job, thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and no health care. And although his team had what he called “a great digital presence,” they struggled with the onset of the pandemic and the transition to virtual campaigning.
“Running a primary election was a whole of a hell lot tougher than I’d thought it was going to be,” Harris said. In the end, Harris lost his primary. But his involvement with politics wasn’t over.
On April 6, Harris and his friend Fran Wilson launched Primary Ohio, a political action committee dedicated to supporting young, marginalized, progressive candidates for local and state office. In doing so, they joined a network of organizations providing wraparound supports—training and mentorship, fundraising and staffing assistance, media coverage, and more—to young people running for elected office.
At every level of government, the average politician is older than the average American. The average mayor is 56, the average governor 58, and the median school board member 59. Meanwhile, the median American is just 38.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a handful of local and national organizations started trying to shrink that gap. Run for Something, one of the largest groups dedicated to recruiting young people to run for local office, was created by a Facebook message. A week after the election, Run for Something cofounder and Executive Director Amanda Litman was approached by a college friend, who said, “I’m thinking about running for office because if Trump can be president, it seems like anybody can do this. What do I do?”
“I didn’t have an answer for him,” Litman said. “There was nowhere you could go in November 2016 where if you were a twentysomething thinking about running for office, they would be guaranteed to take your call.” Millennials and Gen-Zers can struggle to be seen as viable candidates, often being told they lack experience. Young people running for office are viewed as outsiders by the party establishment and face challenges before even getting a foot in the door. “I would get asked about my age very often in a way that wasn’t like, ‘We need more younger people,’” said Liz Sheehan, a Run for Something endorsee and member of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council.
One of the primary goals of youth-oriented PACs, then, is to counteract the negative public perception of younger candidates. By publicizing endorsements and garnering media attention for their candidates, they push back against the dominant narrative that youth-driven campaigns aren’t worthy of attention.
Many of those ageist stereotypes are internalized. A large part of Run for Something’s work, according to cofounder and Chief Program and Recruitment Officer Ross Morales Rocketto, is to inspire the approximately 76,000 people in their “funnel”: young people who are on their way to running for office, but haven’t yet made the decision. “What we’re trying to do is show them that there are people like them who have run for office before, sort of operating under the idea that you can’t be what you can’t see,” Morales Rocketto said.
Blue Future, which describes itself as a project of “the largest progressive, youth-led political action committee in America,” starts earlier, helping young adults build the confidence and professional skills necessary to be successful candidates in the future. Their paid advocacy and leadership program trains 16-to-25-year-olds to be political and community organizers, teaching them about everything from Google Calendar to intersectionality and connecting them with electoral and issue-based campaigns.
“We have a real task to do in terms of making sure there’s a clear pathway for young people who are committed to doing progressive work…to let them know this is how you can make a living, this is how you can have a career organizing for social change,” Nick Guthman, Blue Future’s cofounder and co–executive director, said. “The conservative movement does a fantastic job of identifying, fielding, training, investing, supporting young leaders, young conservatives, so that they have the support system to make a whole career out of conservative politics,” he added. “We, of course, think that is not the path forward.”
Blue Future envisions itself as a “political home” for progressive young people, helping them prepare for and develop careers in progressive organizing. Although the group was launched only three years ago, many of its alumni have already gone from volunteering on progressive campaigns to campaigning themselves.
Skepticism about young candidates’ prospects isn’t just an abstract barrier that can be solved with a little inspiration. It leads to problems with fundraising, creating a self-defeating cycle in which young candidates who aren’t seen as viable struggle to raise money, further decreasing their perceived viability.
Young candidates also usually can’t remedy these funding gaps with their own savings. “A lot of minority, young, progressive candidates don’t have the resources [that would come] after years of running their law firm, or 20 years working in a particular industry, or being a white male executive,” said Wilson, of Primary Ohio.
As a result, many of these organizations also donate directly to campaigns. People for the American Way’s Next Up Victory Fund, which assists progressive candidates under the age of 40, has donated amounts in the six figures, according to Senior Director of Strategy Lizet Ocampo. The fund also helps candidates garner financial and in-kind support through its three-pronged focus on “money, members, and media,” encouraging PFAW supporters and partners to donate to, volunteer on, and publicize endorsees’ campaigns.
In tandem with financial assistance, these groups help candidates access the resources necessary for the behind-the-scenes work of running a campaign: data analysis, voter communications, advertising, and the like. By providing online training programs, mentorship opportunities, and discounts on necessities like organizing software and digital advertising, they help first-time candidates navigate the unexpected challenges of running a campaign.
These offerings are reflective of the organizations’ digital focus, a necessity not just for teams dispersed across the country but also for candidates juggling busy schedules. “We always built this organization to be a digital-first organization,” Litman said. “Most of our candidates are not full-time candidates, so we needed to make sure that our resources [were] accessible in a way that was on their schedule, on their time.”
The emphasis on online and asynchronous communication is just one of the myriad ways these organizations acknowledge the many demands on their endorsees. Running a campaign is hard work, and it’s typically not the only job young candidates are tasked with. Indeed, the intense demands of running for office are one reason so few young people seek and win an election.
“The general public…doesn’t really know how much time it takes and how much energy and the hours that you’re working,” Sheehan said. “I think people are used to seeing people in government who are almost an older or retired age because people run when they have the flexibility in their schedule to be able to do that. And most people who are younger don’t have that flexibility.” One way Run For Something supported Sheehan’s campaign was simply by helping her navigate those overlapping responsibilities. Its mentorship program connects first-time candidates to other Run For Something alumni who know what it’s like to balance being an employee, a candidate, and a parent.
The organization is also aware that the difficulties don’t stop once candidates win their elections. Municipal and state offices are often part-time jobs with relatively low salaries, meaning that young politicians without extensive savings have to navigate a potential pay cut and find flexible employment. And the job can introduce new expenses: State legislators may have to pay for housing in the state’s capital during the legislative session; millennial politicians often need to find child care during and after the campaign.
These problems are even more pressing for young candidates who come from historically marginalized backgrounds. All of the organizations working with young progressive candidates express a commitment to diversity, and all of them are aware of the inequitable resource access that accompanies that diversity. “We really think that it’s important that the program looks like America,” Ocampo said. “That creates a more complex situation when it comes to, ‘How do these candidates win these elections?’”
Although there’s no easy solution to the financial challenges of being a local politician (nor to the disparities in wealth based on age, race, and gender), Morales Rocketto says that young candidates benefit from thinking through these dilemmas in advance. “If the first time you’ve thought about your finances for what happens when you’re elected is after your election, then you’re already behind the eight ball a little bit,” he explained. “I think that’s the type of advice it’s really important to be giving to candidates. At the end of the day, we want more folks to run for office, but we don’t want them to run for office with the wrong ideas of what it is.”
Blue Future also works to address these disparities by paying its student organizers and intentionally trying to serve students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to engage in progressive politics. “Diversity is very important to us. We want to make sure that people like myself, myself being an immigrant Latina, have an opportunity,” Deputy Director Maria Reynoso said. “I was someone who wanted to get involved, but there weren’t any paid opportunities out there. If it wasn’t for my first internship with Blue Future, I might have had to work at a retail store.”
At the same time, though, the challenges that young candidates face are often similar to those of the young PAC executives who support them. Just as a candidate may flounder without an understanding of voter data and campaign regulations, the logistics of starting and running a PAC can be intimidating. The work is time-consuming: As Harris put it, “Weekends aren’t weekends too much.”
“The process is built so complexly,” Wilson said. “A lot of youth probably don’t go out and say, ‘I’m gonna go make a PAC!’” Some groups avoid these difficulties by being part of established organizations—the Next Up Victory Fund, for instance, benefits from the resources of People for the American Way, which was established in 1981 and whose board includes progressive icons like Dolores Huerta. The majority, though, rely on a collaborative culture and willingness to learn.
“The best part of leading a youth-led organization is the team,” Guthman said. “When we’re all young, no one is an expert, and as a result we all have to lean on each other a little bit more and share the wealth of knowledge that we have.”
And they’ve seen success through this approach: Guthman said Blue Future raised almost $750,000 in two years; the average donation was $17. Run for Something has endorsed nearly 1,500 candidates and contributed to the electoral wins of nearly 500.
Ocampo, of the Next Up Victory Fund, also noted that a little money can go a long way on state and local races. “We’re all needed,” she said, referring to organizations from the hyperlocal to the national. “We do everything we can with the resources we have.”
Despite their differences in size and scope, these groups all agree on one thing: the importance of young, diverse progressives running for office. “It really matters who’s in the room making these decisions. It is really important that when you are having conversations about housing, you have young people in the room who are either planning to be lifelong renters because they can’t afford to buy a home or are struggling because they had housing issues back in 2008,” Litman said. “Representation is not just a nice thing to have. It has a direct impact on the outcomes of our legislation.”
Morales Rocketto put it more bluntly: “How can you expect a group of 70- and 80-year-olds in the US Senate to really give a shit about student loans when it cost them 10,000 bucks to go to college?”