In true millennial fashion, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gained national attention last June when she beat out a 10-term incumbent congressman in the Democratic Party's primary election for New York's 14th congressional district. She then went to win against her Republican opponent in the general election, bolting her to become the youngest woman to ever serve as a member in the United States Congress at 29.
In another historical case, Jeramey Anderson was only 21 years old when he became the youngest African American elected to the legislature in U.S. history in 2013. Anderson is now serving his second term as Mississippi state representative, District 110.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the average lawmaker in America today is a 56-year-old white male who holds a business degree. Rep. Anderson is now a 26-year-old black man with a degree in criminal justice.
Rep. Anderson is the exact opposite of what the status quo for an elected official is in the United States.
An epidemic of budding young leaders are bustling onto the administrative scene. The younger members of the millennial generation are the ones who have recently been shaking up politics in recent elections. According to Pew Research Center, the millennial generation is anyone who was born between the years 1981 and 1996; those who are 22 to 37 years old now.
Even through adversities, Rep. Anderson has managed to win his position twice. He beat the odds, running against a former representative, former mayor and two newcomers who were, what he said were around 20 years older than he. “I think people just wanted something different,” he said in a telephone interview.
“Something that we’ve seen across the country, is young people getting involved in politics early,” he said. “People are excited to have a type of fresh, innovative new ideas come forward.”
With 56 the average age in politics, young political aspirants often find themselves underestimated, no matter what credentials they hold against their opponents. Richard Garzola and Jasmine Ali witnessed these obstacles, this past election season, when they ran for Tallahassee City Commission Seat 3 and Seat 1, respectively. Rep. Anderson faced this very issue when he ran in 2013, and again in 2018 when he ran for Congress. “I heard, ‘you know you're not gonna win because you're too young,’” Anderson said. He also heard: “you should wait your turn,” and “you need to get some more experience under your belt before you run for a state office.”
Jasmine Ali, a current student at Florida State University described her campaign as “like going up against the establishment,” she said. “First, a lot of people didn’t really take it seriously just because I was so young, I was 20 years old.”Ali ran against Incumbent Bill Proctor, a role in which he has served in longer than Ali has been alive, some 22 years. Though Ali suffered a defeat, she holds onto a hard fact that no one can take away from her. “We came up with 42.87 percent (of the vote),” she said. “That’s actually the best anyone has ever come up going up against my opponent.”
Richard Garzola, also a current Florida State University student, said “young people will always be discredited because of their age. There will be a lot of ageism. You’ll be discouraged, people will tell you that you’re not ready enough.” Garzola, a former football athlete for the Seminoles, wanted to bring awareness to issues such as homelessness, sleep deprivation and the opioid crisis in Tallahassee that he says many tend to gloss over. Garzola was unsuccessful in his attempt for election, but for him, it was much bigger than the election.
“My political campaign was something that was almost not considered political, it was considered more of a movement where I pushed others, I inspired others, to not only want to make a difference in their community and reach out to their neighbor but have someone else run for office that was young,” he said.
Garzola was unsuccessful in the primaries, but Jeremy Matlow, the 32-year-old owner of Gaines Street Pies, took the win for millennials in gaining the Tallahassee City Commission Seat 3 in the general election.
Ageism has been an obstacle many, if not all, young political leaders have had to conquer. Supportive networks such as the Young Elected Official Network serve as a tool for combating those very issues for those under the age of 35.
Take the story of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
Gillum made national news when he was elected as the first African American gubernatorial nominee for the state of Florida. The Florida A&M University graduate, however, first made history at 23 when he was the youngest person ever elected to the city commission, all while still in school.
Markus Batchelor, Networks Communications Coordinator for the Young Elected Officials Network, said that when Gillum first joined the city commission, he felt as if he was isolated because he was young. In that experience, Batchelor says that Gillum, “wanted to create a network of young people who could support one another in governance.”
“The network is really important because it's one of a few, if not the only network that supports young elected officials, but specifically supports young elected officials while serving in office,” Batchelor said.
Programs, such as this one, are able to help cultivate the next generation of political leaders and encourage them to persevere through ageism. The network is also able to help equip its members with, as Batchelor put it, “Initiatives that are really the future of the country and really the future of local, state and our national community.”
Young political leaders are not exclusive only to those who choose to run for office. There are the people behind the scenes, the young people, who are taking the necessary steps to encourage the younger millennial generation and younger generations to exercise their right to vote.
Ferrisa Connell, 26, served as the Florida State Lead this past election season for #VoteTogether, a statewide program initiative. “We’re trying to celebrate the way people view voting,” Connell said. “Studies have shown that when people congregate, it naturally increases voting.”
Connell’s purpose is to eliminate the excuses that many citizens given when dismissing their civic duty during election season by enticing voters to actually vote.
“You're more likely to go to a block party, you’re more likely to go to a movie on the lawn, a skating party, more likely to go to a Farmers Market than you are to go make a plan to go vote and that’s the sad truth,” Connell said.
Rep. Anderson, Ali, Garzola, Batchelor, Matlow and Connell have already tapped into the ideas of a government that includes everyone, regardless of age. However, with help from everyone, these young political leaders have a real shot at taking over the government in years to come. It takes much more than a campaign. It takes the younger generation of citizens to come out and learn what candidates have to offer, ask questions and then vote for who’s best for the community.
“The millennial generation shouldn’t have to wait our turn because our turn is now,” said Rep. Anderson.