“The young people will win,” vowed David Hogg, the Parkland activist who has turned the stalled movement for gun control into a plea for political engagement.
The change registered far beyond the suburb of South Florida where 17 students and educators died on Feb. 14, Hogg said. Tuesday’s primaries advanced two 39-year-old candidates for governor. The nominees stand out in a landscape dominated by older candidates.
Age adds another noteworthy factor to a race that distills some of the most dramatic dynamics reshaping American politics, as a devotee of President Trump and a black progressive prepare to face off in November.
“Young people are fighting for people who are not middle-ground,” Hogg said in an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post, describing Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the state’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, as a role model. “Democrats do not want a Republican light, and Republicans don’t want a Democrat light to be their governor.”
Depending on outcomes in other states, either Gillum or U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis could become the youngest governor in the country. (State Rep. Andria Tupola, Hawaii’s Republican nominee for governor, is 37.) The current youngest is Republican Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who is 43. The shift toward younger gubernatorial candidates and governors comes at a time when the average age of sitting governors at the time of their inauguration is 56, according to the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University.
Gillum’s age could represent another breakthrough for the candidate, who is the first African American to win a major-party nomination for governor in Florida. If he wins, he would become the youngest governor in Florida’s history, claiming the distinction held by Republican Claude R. Kirk, Jr., who was inaugurated in 1967 at age 40. (DeSantis turns 40 in September.)
Gillum’s pitch to African Americans and young people was at the center of his primary campaign, spokesman Geoff Burgan told the Tampa Bay Times, saying these groups represent “people who have typically dropped off.” The mayor’s chief rival, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, was more than 10 years his senior.
In fact, his youth has long been a focal point of his political career. Born in Miami to a school bus driver and a construction worker, Gillum, at 23, became the youngest person elected to Tallahassee’s city commission. He went on to help found the Young Elected Officials Network, part of the liberal advocacy group People For the American Way. He became the group’s director, working to support politicians 35 and under.
In 2009, he told the website Colorlines that youth mobilization and racial justice were intertwined. “Our struggles today don’t resemble the ’60s civil rights struggles, but we have our new civil rights struggles,” he said.
Stumping for Gillum at the University of Central Florida, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — the liberal firebrand who in 2016 earned more votes among those under 30 than the two major-party nominees combined — told students, “You’re going to have a governor who understands that the future of this state and the future of this country is with the young people.”
DeSantis, too, was singled out for his youth. In a December tweet praising the three-term congressman who fashioned himself as an anti-establishment candidate, Trump labeled the Ivy League graduate a “brilliant young leader.”
Though vastly outspent by his primary opponents, Gillum did net the endorsement of billionaire Tom Steyer, whose political action committee, NextGen America, ran a digital advertising campaign targeting young voters on social media. The 30-second spot, emphasizing progressive issues such as corporate taxes and a Medicare-for-all health-care system, advised, “For anyone who’s been told to quiet down, to wait their turn, that it’s not their time, Gillum is our guy.”
But it was above all his post-Parkland involvement in the movement against gun violence that appealed to young people, Hogg said. “A lot of the young people I know were excited by him,” the high school student said, because of his opposition to “stand your ground” laws and support for new gun-control measures, as well as the candidate’s left-wing position on health care.
A week after the February shooting, Gillum led thousands of demonstrators at Florida State University in a march demanding gun control — a move he promoted in a video that captures the candidate encouraging students, “You’re speaking for the kids in the generation of tomorrow so that they don’t have to take this very same march that you’re taking today.”
DeSantis, who boasts an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, told a CBS affiliate that the solution to gun violence was “identifying the problem people” rather than enforcing “blanket bans on the rights of law-abiding citizens.”
Data suggests the deadly shooting in the South Florida suburb was politically energizing. An analysis released last month by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, revealed that registration rates for people under 30 increased significantly in swing states during the past seven months. In the several months before the February shooting, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 accounted for more than 26 percent of new voter registration in Florida, according to TargetSmart. The data showed an increase close to eight percentage points in the months after the shooting.
The impact of a more activated cohort of young voters could be enormous. Young people broadly defined — Generation X, Millennials and the post-Millennial generation — compose 59 percent of voting-eligible adults, according to Pew. But Millennials and GenXers, in particular, are less likely to show up to vote than are older generations, especially in midterm elections. This imbalance matters, Pew said, because “generational differences in political preferences are now as wide as they have been in decades.” Among registered voters, 59 percent of Millennials, for example, are Democrats or lean that way.
Tuesday’s results, Hogg said, suggest turnout patterns may be shifting, though data wasn’t yet available to confirm the point. If more young people are voting in Florida, he said, that may owe not just to enthusiasm but to the elimination of structural barriers. A ruling from a federal judge last month invalidated a Republican-imposed ban on early voting on college campuses.
The primary also held a clear lesson for young people, Hogg said.
“We as young people will win not by using hate, not by using division,” the 18-year-old said. “It’s about campaigning and voting.”
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