The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hungry for change, Gen Z tries something new: Running for local office

Diverse, liberal and digitally savvy, they’re changing the ‘tenor’ of down-ballot races across the country, observers say

Joe Vogel, 25, who is running for a seat in the Maryland House, greets supporters in Gaithersburg alongside state Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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His campaign manager is a college freshman, his most dedicated volunteers are high-schoolers, and the state legislator he’s running to replace took office in 2006 — when he was 9. He’s also gay, trilingual and, at 25, slightly embarrassed to say he’s still living with his parents. If elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, Joe Vogel would be the youngest person sworn into the state legislature next January and nearly three decades younger than most of his colleagues.

By many measures, he’s got a good shot: Vogel has raised five times as much money as his main competitor; earned the endorsement of an influential state senator; and recruited more than 40 people to help him reach voters. He strategizes with his friend Will Haskell, who was elected to the Connecticut state Senate at 22, and hosts campaign events featuring his former boss, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

“This is one of the most decisive moments in politics that we’ll experience,” Vogel said in a recent interview, citing the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide protests on racial justice and attack on the U.S. Capitol. “This is a moment that called and said, ‘Get in the arena.’ ”

Why has Biden’s approval plunged with young people?

In liberal communities across the United States, candidates who identify as Generation Z — generally defined as those born from 1997 to 2012 — are mounting strong campaigns for local and state offices, drawing on the frustration of young people who have grown disillusioned with President Biden after helping propel him into power in 2020. Diverse and digitally savvy, these candidates are pitching themselves as representatives of communities long left out from electoral politics and vowing to bring more dramatic progress on issues such as climate action, gun control and affordable housing.

“They’re everywhere. They’re not centered in blue or urban environments, and it’s all kinds of offices — school board to county commission to state legislature,” said Amanda Litman, executive director of Run for Something, a group that supports young people for local and state office. For this year’s midterm elections, 22 of the 259 candidates they’ve endorsed are Gen Z. Most are people of color, Litman said, and many have an “expansive understanding” of gender and sexual orientation.

Combined with a “moral clarity” and an intuitive understanding of how to market their brands on social media, “they’re changing the tenor of conversation,” Litman said.

In Illinois, Nabeela Syed, a 23-year-old Muslim activist who wants to increase protections for transgender students, is running to become the state’s first South Asian woman to serve in the legislature. In Missouri, Justice Horn, a Black gay activist who led Black Lives Matter protests, wants to become a county legislator — one of the only public offices he’s old enough to run for at 23.

“I just hope it sends a signal to other young people, queer people, that local government is for you,” Horn said. “The more we throw at the system, the more we’re going to win.”

Vogel, who identifies as Latino and Jewish, is vying for a House seat in Montgomery County being vacated by veteran lawmaker James W. Gilchrist, 56. In the Democratic primary, which often determines the eventual winner in this deep-blue district, four people are competing for three seats: Incumbents Kumar P. Barve and Julie Palakovich Carr are running for reelection, along with Vogel and Joe De Maria, a 63-year-old federal government contractor and first-time politician.

De Maria, a former diplomat who said he wants to expand protections for workers, has raised $15,000. With about three months left to the primary, he’s in discussion with groups on endorsements but has yet to receive any, he said. Asked whether he’s worried about Vogel’s campaign, he said no.

“I don’t know much about him,” added De Maria. He racially identifies as Caucasian but questioned whether it should matter to his candidacy.

“I’m American,” he wrote in a text message. “This is the 21st century.”

Vogel has raised $90,000 and lists several dozen endorsements on his website, including state Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), Montgomery’s teachers union and Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman. On the campaign, he has been open about various aspects of his identity and how they’d influence his perspective as a legislator.

“I was asked at the beginning of the campaign if I would embrace being gay, and I was like, what do you mean? How could I not?” Vogel said. “It’s who I am.”

If elected, Vogel said, he would focus on responding to the climate crisis, increasing mental health care and growing the state’s economy. The vast majority of the young people he grew up with in Montgomery no longer live in the county because affordable housing and high-paying jobs are in short supply.

“We’re losing young people,” he said, “because we’re missing those voices in government.”

Born in Uruguay, Vogel immigrated to the United States at age 3 with his family, settling down in Rockville, part of the district he’s now running to represent. He developed an early interest in politics and did student government in school. In 2012, when he was 15, a gunman walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 26 people. Following the shooting, federal legislation to curb gun sales failed along bipartisan lines.

“That was the first time I felt disillusioned,” said Vogel, who like many in his generation grew up doing active-shooter drills. “I just thought to myself: Someone just killed a bunch of first-graders, how, and I mean how, could the government not react?”

But his disappointment didn’t last, he said. In 2016, frightened by President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, pro-NRA rhetoric, Vogel took a year off college at George Washington University to work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He traveled across the country while trying to process his citizenship application so that he could vote. But work got too busy and he wasn’t able to get home; he took his oath of citizenship five days after Trump won.

“That was when I felt, okay, I’m a citizen now,” Vogel said. “I have an obligation to fight for this country.”

Kagan, the state senator, had been looking for a new voice for the District 17 delegation even before Gilchrist announced that he would not seek reelection. She turned to one of her most effective volunteers during a 2014 Senate campaign: Vogel, who by 2021 was in his second year of a three-year graduate degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He had experience as a staffer on three presidential campaigns and, during the pandemic, founded a nonprofit to provide free, virtual tutoring to students.

For the past year, Vogel has been campaigning while finishing up his degree, often logging 12-hour days, he said.

“If I win this election,” he said, “I’ll have the power that I wish I had after Sandy Hook.”

Katherine Schwering, 73, was home in Rockville one recent afternoon when Vogel came knocking.

“I’d like to see [Maryland] get more into wind,” she said. Vogel nodded. Maryland just passed an ambitious climate action plan, but it should keep pushing the dial, especially with the electrification of buildings, he said. As a legislator, he’d look into wind energy.

“Cheryl Kagan endorsed you?” Schwering asked, eyeing his pamphlet. She valued experience and found the man in front of her awfully young, but she thought highly of Kagan.

“That’s right,” Vogel said, smiling.

1 in 6 Gen Z adults are LGBT. And this number could continue to grow.

Emmanuel Ching, 18, Vogel’s campaign manager, watched the candidate from a few feet back. Some constituents were naturally enthusiastic about Vogel — teenagers often thought it was “cool” a Gen Zer was running, and older adults sometimes recognized Vogel from when he was a kid and felt proud that he wanted to represent their community. But even the wary weren’t hard to convince, Ching said.

Vogel said that while he knows he has to make his case to older constituents, he also worries about the lack of faith that younger voters have in politics, in part because he genuinely understands where it comes from. He talks about it with Ashanti Martinez, an Afro-Latino activist running for a House seat in neighboring Prince George’s County.

“We’re the products of incremental change,” said Martinez, who, at 26, is among the youngest of the millennial generation. “We’ve seen the Obamaesque idea of ‘you get what you can, and you go back and get some more,’ and we know that hasn’t served our community equitably.”

The Jean War between millennials and Gen Z cannot be won

Himanshu Gediya, 18, agrees.

In January, his high school in Rockville, Magruder, went into lockdown after a 17-year-old armed with a gun shot a student. Gediya and his classmates have been asking elected officials to invest in more mental health support for students, but the resources haven’t materialized. Scrolling on Instagram a few months ago, he came across the profile of a young man who said he was running for office — a candidate who, like him, was an immigrant, a Gen Zer, and who wanted to end gun violence.

Gediya messaged Vogel on Instagram. “I know the change that I am fighting for isn’t going to happen overnight,” he wrote, “But electing government officials like you could make a big difference.”

These days, Gediya canvasses for Vogel at least once a week.

If Vogel gets elected, Gediya thinks, maybe one day he could do it, too.