BURLINGTON, Vt. — In less than 24 hours, Ethan Sonneborn, a Democratic candidate for governor of Vermont, was set to face off against four opponents at a televised forum. He needed to stand out against a crowded primary field and make enough of an impact to overcome his low name recognition. So his opening statement was crucial.
“I want to be almost exclusively focused on the economy in my opening statement, because no other candidate has a monopoly on the economy,” he told his campaign manager, Miles Burgess, and his chief of staff, Alex Yaggy. “Let’s add in a line about raising the minimum wage.”
Sonneborn leaned back into a cozy beige sectional and began to dictate while Burgess took notes on a yellow legal pad.
It was a perfectly normal campaign meeting except in one important way: Sonneborn is 14 years old. And so is his senior staff (although, to be fair, Yaggy will turn 15 on primary day.)
On an overcast Wednesday afternoon, in the waning days of summer vacation, the three boys sat inside doing debate prep at Sonneborn’s house and noshing on banana bread that his mother has set out for them.
And they were dead serious about it. The TV in the den displayed a write-up of the Republican primary debate, which they dissected like the salty, weathered politicos that they are not. As Sonneborn talked, Burgess occasionally offered suggestions while Yaggy pushed the candidate to be more specific when rhetoric got the better of him. “Every politician says jobs and small business are backbones of the economy and you just did it,” he interjects after one particularly gilded line.
Journey to candidacy
“Is this legal?” his campaign website asks rhetorically.
Yep! Unlike most states, Vermont has no age requirement for gubernatorial candidates, only a residency requirement. Sonneborn, who has lived in Bristol for 14 years — his entire life — makes the cut.
Sonneborn declared his candidacy for governor back in August 2017, and then told his parents about it. After the secretary of state consulted with the attorney general, it was decided that he would be allowed to run, but his parents would have to sign a form acknowledging that they knew he was running and didn’t oppose him doing so.
No big! He got their permission.
With that out of the way, Sonneborn had to gather the necessary signatures to actually get on the ballot. Could he do it? Yes he could! A beaming Sonneborn delivered the signatures in May.
With all those hurdles cleared, could Sonneborn . . . actually win the Democratic nomination on Aug. 14?
Probably not. Age aside, he is hamstrung by very low name recognition, a problem that his adult Democratic opponents face as well. But hey, nobody thought a 14-year-old would actually run, let alone land himself on the ballot, let alone participate — and hold his own — against his adult competitors in several candidate forums.
Sonneborn thinks he can do it. “My campaign transcends age,” he said. He possesses a preternatural self-assurance that’s not uncommon among politicians, but certainly is among teenagers who typically navigate the cutthroat politics of high school, not state government.
If he wins, he’ll appear on the general election ballot as the Democratic nominee. Though it’s unlikely that Sonneborn will unseat Republican Gov. Phil Scott this November since the race is considered safely Republican, if he does somehow make it that far, “that’s up to the attorney general,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said.
‘You’ve got to get involved’
In the wake of the Parkland shooting, political observers have been asking whether the subsequent student-led protests would lead to more participation from the youngest generations. Right now, a Washington Post analysis shows that young voters aren’t on track to sway the outcome of the midterm elections.
But one of the most fascinating subplots of the 2018 election cycle is that there are numerous teenagers running for office. Just in Vermont, there’s also Finnian Boardman Abbey, 16, who is running for state Senate. And in Kansas, several teenagers ran for governor, drawing national media attention. These young candidates don’t just want people to vote, they want people to vote for them.
Long before Parkland, Sonneborn was determined to make young people a bigger part of the political process, starting with himself. He’d served as a page in the Vermont state legislature this year, but even then, he had his eye on a much higher office.
When you ask him why he’s running, he’ll tell you it’s “to win.” He doesn’t postulate what would happen if he loses, even if he’s asked repeatedly over the course of several interviews.
But, in addition to his gubernatorial ambitions, Sonneborn, a staunch progressive, wants his campaign to inspire young voters.
“It’s on us to build our own future,” he said. “You’ve got to get involved, you’ve got to vote, you’ve got to knock on doors. It’s how we’re going to make the changes we want to see in the state, in this country, in this world. When we get involved, we make our democracy stronger.”
“I give a lot of credit to Ethan,” Condos said. He’d met Sonneborn and found him to be “a smart young, energetic guy who is engaged in civil discourse. He should be commended for taking an action to try to promote the attitudes of young adults.”
“I think Ethan’s candidacy symbolizes that age doesn’t matter, ideas matter, honesty matters,” said Jack Bergeson, one of the teenagers who ran for governor of Kansas. The two candidates got to know each other over the course of their campaigns; Bergeson even visited Sonneborn in Vermont.
“He has as good ideas as any politicians in our times have. He does care. The issues really do matter to him. If he gets elected, he can make Vermont better than it already is,” Bergeson said.
The great debate
On Thursday evening, the day after debate prep, Sonnenborn strode into the studio of Channel 17 Town Meeting Television for the Democratic primary forum, decked out in a pressed navy suit and an immaculately tied tie.
His parents, Dan and Jenna, and his 12-year-old sister, Julia, were there. But as the cameras prepared to roll and the small studio audience got settled in, he made quiet small talk with his adult opponents.
Sonneborn aside, the Democratic field is an interesting collection of candidates. There is environmental activist James Ehlers; Christine Hallquist, who used to run the Vermont Electric Cooperative and would be the first transgender woman to become a major party nominee for governor if she wins the primary; Brenda Siegel, a single mother who wants to end the opioid crisis; and state Sen. John Rodgers, who isn’t actually on the ballot and rejects traditional politicking.
Once they go live, Sonneborn’s all business. “I am running to be the change candidate,” he declares. He loves a good rhetorical flourish (“We as a state are only as strong as our weakest link”) and occasionally struggles to come up with them off the cuff, resulting in some lengthy Obama-esque pauses.
But sometimes, his age and his platform align to his advantage, such as when the issue of gun control in Vermont came up. Because when he talked about school safety, he was talking about his own school and his own safety.
“School shooters are not well-regulated militias. People who are stockpiling assault weapons are not well-regulated militias,” he said. “I think we have to move to a system where we put safety first.”
“I think that means we tackle mental-health issues, I think it means we tackle school safety issues, and I think it means we tackle gun issues.”
What was most remarkable was not how his age affected his candidacy, but how it didn’t. Nobody — not the moderator, not his opponents, not audience members who submitted questions — raised the subject or asked him if this was a good idea. It had come up in earlier interviews, but today, Sonneborn was just another candidate.
After the forum, Ehlers, who had delivered many of his talking points in a somber monotone while the cameras were rolling, bounded, beaming, over to Sonneborn’s dad and gave his hand a hearty shake.
Hallquist, who had dutifully stuck to her talking points about education and political divisiveness during an interview with The Post earlier that day, lit up when Sonneborn was mentioned. “It’s been real fun having him on the ballot,” she said.
Sylvia and Cora Burkman, ages 14 and 10, had sat in the audience with their parents and watched Sonneborn debate. “I think it was really cool someone his age was running,” Sylvia said. Despite being the same age, she didn’t think she would vote for him. But she agreed with most of his ideas.
The only person who didn’t seem all that impressed was Julia. She’s just not that into politics.
Is it a movement, or a moment?
There are moments, such as when Sonneborn struggles to alight on the right snippet of oratory about minimum wage, health care or education, when it becomes clear that so much of politics these days comes down to churning out consistent rhetoric day after day, tweet after tweet. Sonneborn cites Barack Obama, Robert F. Kennedy and Howard Dean as political role models. All were persuasive orators who inspired masses with their words and signature cadences.
But Sonneborn is also an emblem of what can happen when a young citizen identifies an issue, finds his voice and decides to get involved in the political process. What can happen when they seize on the power of that rhetoric, and those tweets, and Obama-style grass-roots organizing, and insist that others listen. “I’m really inspired by people who are effectively able to build coalitions and who are able to incorporate elements of populism without the nationalism,” he said.
Politics is a system that demands participation and rewards those who show up. Sonneborn decided to participate, and though he probably isn’t going to win, he got pretty far by showing up.
Politics also loves young, fresh faces and ideas. In this particular year, the ecosystem has welcomed youthful, diverse politicians such as the oft-referenced Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These candidates are changing narratives and challenging perceptions of who gets to run, who gets elected, and which voters decide the outcome of the race.
Sonneborn is participating. The Parkland kids are participating. The Kansas teens participated. Will they be a blip in America’s history of low youth engagement? Or do they signal a turning point in our politics? We’ll find out in November.
But as Sonneborn sees it, the goal isn’t even that lofty.
“Even if I get one vote, my campaign will have been successful.”