A white-haired politician who came of age during the civil rights movement and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War has inspired a handful of Southwest Washington millennials to try to change today’s political landscape.
Bernie Sanders has “catalyzed a movement,” said Kaitlyn Beck, 20, who is running to be a state representative in the 49th Legislative District.
“He’s given a voice to people who were traditionally thought not to be running for office,” Beck said. “We’ve got people of color, LGBT individuals, people who have been living in poverty their entire lives who are like, ‘I want to do this. I want to make my community better.’ ”
The five candidates, all Democrats, currently live in Vancouver.
Some still live with their parents. Others can’t legally drink. But they are politically engaged and believe it’s time for a demographic shift in Olympia.
Not long ago, millennials — defined as having been born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — were cast as reluctant to run for office and categorized as generally finding elected officials untrustworthy.
The Sanders campaign could have a spillover effect that changes that perception.
“I was completely inspired,” said Justin Oberg, 23 who is running to represent the 18th Legislative District in the statehouse. “Running for political office wasn’t on my radar more than a year ago. It was getting really involved with the (Sanders) campaign and with our local political system that I started to see the representatives we currently have aren’t doing what I would expect them to be doing to address the big needs in our community.”
For Oberg, that means taking a tougher stance against the oil-by-rail terminal that’s been proposed for the Port of Vancouver and working to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.
“That crossing is going to play a huge role in the development in our community,” Oberg said.
President Barack Obama also rallied younger voters, but Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University, said there’s a larger ideological gap between Hillary Clinton and Sanders then there was between Clinton and Obama.
“There was hope and optimism of change. … Sanders is mobilizing young people over substance, not style. So it’s a different type of mobilization. It’s a more active, issue-driven group of young people,” Donovan said.
Josh Egan, who is 21 and running for the 17th Legislative District, always planned to run for office.
“I’ve been following city politics since I was in elementary school,” he said. “I remember seeing Royce Pollard and thinking, ‘He’s so cool, that’s the mayor.'”
Egan, who is also a Sanders’ supporter, said he figured now was a good time.
“Our generation is the largest to ever exist in the United States, and I thought, ‘When are we going to start making decisions?’ I realized I had to step up, so I filed.”
Most of them said they see their age as an advantage. The average age of a state legislator is 56, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Several candidates mentioned they’re closer to the issues the state Legislature is tackling, such as education funding. They know what it’s like to be saddled with debt.
Others said they realize they might not know everything, which would make them more likely to listen and work across the aisle.
And they’d bring different experiences to the statehouse.
“During middle and high school, I lost friends to the heroin epidemic. I know how the community feels, the angst,” said Vaughn Henderson, who is running for the state Senate in the 49th Legislative District, and who also worked on the Sanders’ campaign.
“I’m also bisexual and part of the LGBT community and understand the problems that face them.”
Ilana Brown, 21, who is vying for 18th Legislative District seat in the House, emphasized it’s about more than Sanders.
“I think a lot of young people are inspired and motivated by the Bernie movement right now, but they also feel like they need a voice at the table,” Brown said.
Henderson, who at 19 is the youngest of the candidates, said he’s not worried some will consider him too young to represent them.
“Washington state has rules (as to when you) can be elected,” said Henderson. “They decided it was 18. So I would say 17 is too young. We should be encouraging younger people to step forward and take part of the political process.”