The first Gen Z candidates run for Congress — and run against compromise
It is not difficult for Maxwell Alejandro Frost to name political moments from his childhood that marked him.
“To turn on the television and see a bunch of people sleeping outside Wall Street talking about something called ‘wealth inequality’ — seeing that in elementary school,” Frost said.
“Growing up to hear that 30 minutes from me a kid who looked like me and wore a hoodie was murdered because he was black, Trayvon Martin, and he saw the outrage after that” , he added.
Frost is running for Congress in Florida’s 10th congressional district, an open, solidly blue seat containing parts of Orlando — he’s 25, the minimum age to serve in the U.S. House.
He is also part of Generation Z — which the Pew Research Center defines as anyone born between 1997 and 2012 — and, if elected, would potentially be the first Gen Z member of Congress. The 2022 midterm cycle marks the first time in 16 years that millennials aren’t the youngest generation capable of running, raising questions about how Gen Z will approach Washington.
For Frost, his roots are in organizing, working as an activist since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 and most recently as National Organizing Director of March For Our Lives, a youth-led group that advocates for increased gun control policy. It is also a survivor of a separate incident of gun violence.
A generation shaped by upheaval
He says Generation Z has a new way of approaching politics, given that this generation came of age during such a volatile time in American history.
“Our generation was born into a lot of trauma and civil unrest around people being frustrated with things. And I think because of that, our generation naturally thinks about things a little bit differently,” Frost said.
In the suburbs of Saint Louis, Ray Reed, 25, is also breaking out of the traditional mould. He is an organizer and former Democratic campaign staffer vying to oust Republican Rep. Ann Wagner in Missouri’s 2nd congressional district, and he pushes back against those who say he should start in local politics.
“The cynics are kind of saying, oh, he’s too young, he’s too inexperienced, maybe if he were to hand Jeff a few terms[erson] City, maybe then he’ll be ready to run for Congress. Which is really just political talk because let’s integrate it into our system. Let’s teach him to play the game our way. And then if we say he’s ready, he can run for a higher position,” Reed said.
He says cynics dismissed him as a risky choice.
“I think the real risk is nominating the same kind of Democratic candidates election after election after election and somehow expecting a different outcome,” he added.
Reed and Frost are both progressive, focusing on issues such as combating gun violence, passing the Green New Deal, and canceling student debt.
Reed also tied the decision to Gen Z voters.
And while Frost and Reed are issue-focused, there’s no denying that age is part of their campaigns.
For Frost, the potential to go down in history as the first member of the Gen Z House plays more of a symbolic role.
“Yes we march, yes we engage in self-help, yes we engage in social media, and now we’re running for office because we believe we’re ready to be in theaters and be the voice of our communities and we can do that and young people should be allowed,” he said.
Although Frost faces a challenge from his main opponent, Sen. Randolph Bracy, he has garnered a slew of high-level support, including from progressive leaders like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. He also has the support of the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC and gun control organization Giffords.
What motivates young candidates to run?
Frost and Reed’s dynamism makes sense to Amanda Litman, a millennial and CEO of Run for Something, an organization that backs incoming Democratic candidates.
“You don’t run for office at 25 because that’s your next step in your career or that’s what you’ve been planning since you were a kindergartener or a college president,” Litman said. . “You run because there’s a problem pushing you so hard that you can’t imagine doing anything else with your time,” she added.
But that passion isn’t just found among Democratic candidates — Karoline Leavitt is a fierce conservative running for Congress in New Hampshire’s 1st District, a ballot seat currently held by Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas.
Leavitt turns 25 in August, making her eligible to serve in Congress by next January.
“It’s a very one-sided culture that we live in,” Leavitt said, “How do we break that mould? It’s by electing young people to positions that can resonate with those voters, have a flat -form at the national level, which can show them ideas, policies, values that they do not hear at all elsewhere.”
Leavitt is already an approved GOP staffer, working in the Trump administration as a deputy press secretary. Most recently, she served as the spokesperson for Millennial Rep. Elise Stefanik, RN.Y., who made history in 2014 as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at that time. Leavitt is also endorsed by Stefanik, along with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn
Although Gen Z’s early electoral leanings are decidedly liberal, Leavitt hopes her campaign will energize young conservatives and steer voters away from progressive ideas that she says are too extreme.
“I think some of these more progressive candidates are just a reflection of the system that’s out there and that’s exactly the system I’m trying to fight against,” she said.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Frost shares a similar fighting attitude when considering how he would work in a bitterly divided Congress.
“We come to the negotiating table not already to compromise, which is what Democrats generally tend to do,” Frost said. “I think that’s part of the reason the Republican Party has these long-term plans that often come to fruition,” he added.
Gen Z’s approach to politics diverges from that of Millennials
This determination to stand up for your values shows an apparent deviation from the millennials who came to Congress during Obama’s presidency, according to conservative pollster and strategist Kristin Soltis Anderson — who is also a millennial.
“The frame has gone from, ‘I’m going to bring about this change by being someone who looks for opportunities to work across the aisle,’ and more, ‘I’m going to disrupt the institutions and systems that enable to the next continue to prevail,” she said.
But coming to Congress and disrupting the institution isn’t received the same way by Democrats as it is by Republicans.
“It’s very striking that even though the Democratic Party is doing better among younger voters, it doesn’t seem to have cornered the market by elevating younger candidates,” Anderson said.
For Litman, this is where Democrats have a big problem, and she points to the age distribution of House leaders in each party.
“There’s really no incentive for older people in Congress to step aside and let a younger generation lead,” Litman said, “because the longer you serve, the more likely you are to get seniority on a committee.”
Unlike the Democratic side, the Republicans began to uplift younger members. Last year, Stefanik rose through the GOP ranks, becoming chairwoman of the House Republican Conference and bringing the average age of GOP leaders down to 55.
On the Democratic side, millennial pioneers remain excluded from leadership and the average age is 71.
This age disparity between the parties prompts Anderson to argue that neither side has a real head start right now.
“I don’t think either party has a huge advantage in raising the voices of Gen Z in the election right now, and that’s despite the Democrats having an edge among those voters at the polls. “, she said.
While the Democratic and Republican outlook with future members of Gen Z remains unclear, the inaugural class leading this midterm cycle is heading into its primaries.
Reed’s game in Missouri is scheduled for August 1, Frost in Florida on August 23 and Leavitt in New Hampshire on September 13.
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