Updated on 12:30 p.m.
Last September, LaunchProgress threw a kick-off fundraiser in Washington, D.C. They didn't hold it at a steakhouse downtown, or at a glitzy house in Georgetown. Instead they held it at Ozio, a downtown bar known more for happy hour specials than hosting political fundraisers (one of the organizers excitedly said that it was the cheapest place they could find).
The party itself — with Miley Cyrus playing over the hum of the assembled twenty-somethings — featured patrons who looked more like the people who work behind the scenes in modern campaigns than the ones who fund it. But these people weren't prepping to build Web sites or do data analytics or go door-knocking for candidates the same age as their parents, the de riguer path to power for young politically minded types. Instead, LaunchProgress was hoping to raise money to help elect people who looked like the people chatting about Facebook and student debt and their nonprofit internships upstairs at Ozio that night.
Poy Winichakul , who previously worked at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Luke Squire, who worked for North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, co-founded LaunchProgress last year with an eye toward building an infrastructure to elect people ages 18 to 35. Beyond that, they want to elect young minorities, too — an especially underrepresented group of people in politics.
A study conducted by Rutgers University in 2004 showed that half of elected officials in the United States at that point had taken office when they were under 35. However, many of those first elections took place decades ago; the U.S. Congress is going noticeably gray. Last year, NBC News crunched the numbers; the average age of U.S. senators is 60 — the oldest ever. The average member of Congress is about 55 — the oldest in a century. The young people who are getting elected look a lot like the young people who have been getting elected in America for over a century. They are male, they are white, they are Protestant and they are married.
It can be especially hard to get young women to run without outside encouragement. Another Rutgers study from 2009 shows that 53 percent of female state House members hadn't decided to run until someone recruited them. Forty-three percent of male state representatives said it was entirely their idea to run. Academics at American University asked college students whether they ever thought they'd run for political office if they were older. Sixty-three percent of the women they asked said they'd never thought about it. The same was true for 43 percent of men.
Not only are young people not interested in running, they aren't that interested in voting, either. A study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics last fall showed that 34 percent of people ages 18-29 said they planned to vote in the midterm elections.
"There aren't many organizations that invest in young people," Winichakul says, which is why they're planning to invest in state legislative races in Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina this year, providing campaign help to a select number of candidates who are running for their first political office. After a few months of preliminary organizing with the LaunchProgress Action Fund, the nonprofit arm of their organization that seeks to get young people to run in the first place, they're ready to debut LaunchProgress PAC. The political action committee plans to help unseasoned candidates write news releases and stump speeches, organize public outreach and contact local media.
Today, they are announcing their first endorsements, all candidates running for the Michigan state legislature.
Jon Hoadley is running in House District 60 in Kalamazoo, and would be the only openly gay member currently in the statehouse if elected. Stephanie Chang is running in District 6 in Detroit, and would be the first Asian American woman to serve in the state legislature if elected. Kristy Pagan is running is House District 21, and once worked as a legislative aide for Michigan's first female senator, Debbie Stabenow. (The Michigan state legislature is currently made up of 20 percent women.) Rebecca Thompson is running in House District 1 in Detroit, and has worked for several organizations trying to elect young people.
Next month, the LaunchProgress PAC will announce the candidates they plan to support in Ohio. They will select candidates from North Carolina in May. The rubric they use to pick candidates? "We're about finding and helping the next Elizabeth Warren," Winichakul says.
LaunchProgress isn't alone in trying to call young potential politicians to arms. Similar Republican groups have sprung up in the past year. George P. Bush and Jeb Bush Jr. set up Maverick PAC, which, as Chris Moody reported last July, is "working to encourage right-leaning millennials and Gen Xers to start giving to Republican campaigns and causes." RightNOW Women PAC, which launched this January, is trying to get young Republican women to run for office. The 501(c)4 Concord 51 "is looking to mobilize Republicans under 35 into a national movement," as Anna Palmer reported last March.
Getting young people excited about politics is eternally trendy, but the methods have changed, thanks to Citizens United and social media and Zach Galifikanakis.
Winichakul says the LaunchProgress PAC is focusing on state legislature races in 2014 because that's where they have the greatest ability to affect change. For a new organization that's trying to help people who have always had difficulty getting elected, jumping straight into federal races would be a tad too ambitious. However, the states they have chosen for their inaugural year have also been battlegrounds for big political issues the past few years.
In North Carolina, Republicans took the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction in 2010. Since then, the state's historically progressive education and economic policies have given way to austerity budgets. Many state residents have organized in opposition to their elected officials.
Michigan and Ohio have seen similar shifts to the right, without the same national attention. Given the tumultuous politics in these states, LaunchProgress thinks it has a chance to get these young people elected despite lacking the resources of super PACs and 501(c)4s. Many of the Michigan candidates are competing in safe Democratic seats. If they manage to win their primaries — some of which feature stiff competition from well-known local leaders — they'll have a clear path to office. That if could be a big one given the long odds that face young candidates — unknown ones in particular — especially given the increasingly large role outside money plays in state and local elections. In the 2010 elections, outside groups spent at least $2.2 million in state legislative races in North Carolina. In Ohio, outside groups from both parties are planning to spend massive amounts in secretary of state elections, races never known for drawing attentions or donors.
Despite the mighty competition, LaunchProgress' founders think their method of campaign troubleshooting instead of "throwing money at candidates," as Winichakul puts it, will give them an edge. Since LaunchProgress is a political action committee, they can donate a maximum of $10,000 to the candidates in Michigan. The group hopes to raise $100,000 for the midterm elections. While they fundraise, their first round of candidates has already been busy campaigning.
Stephanie Chang has been knocking on doors in Detroit since early March. She decided to run in District 6 when the current state representative, Rashida Tlaib -- who was facing term limits and is now running for state Senate -- told Chang she should consider running. The 30-year-old first-time candidate said she's "very honored" to be among LaunchProgress' first picks, and is most excited about the opportunity to talk to other young progressives about their policy ideas.
LaunchProgress will help their chosen candidates by matching them up with members of the candidate advisory committee, which currently has 30 members. They come from all over the country, and come from many different careers — some are political, some are technological, some are whizzes at graphic design, but all have something to offer first-time campaigners in the eyes of Winichakul and Squires.
LaunchProgress, based in Brooklyn, also realizes the danger of looking like a national organization infiltrating local politics. Winichakul stresses that they are only there to supplement the campaigns these candidates have already built on their own. The whole point of LaunchProgress is to not zoom in with a national organization," she says. "It's important for the candidate to learn on campaign trail, but we clearly think that local presence needs to take precedent."
Jon Hoadley moved to Kalamazoo in 2009 to run a local human rights campaign, and later started a public relations firm in the city, Badlands Strategies. He has never run for political office, but managed to outraise his opponents in the Democratic primary for the open House seat 2-1 last year, getting $60,675 in donations. Like Chang, he's 30 years old. He also thinks his perspective is one the state legislature could use. He may never have married, he may have no kids in the public school system, but he does get how young people experience major life moments far differently than previous generations.
"I was talking to a gentleman a few weeks ago," Hoadley says, "and he said his first job 30 years ago was as an apprentice for a union." It was a manufacturing gig that made $11.30 an hour plus benefits. Hoadley asked around, and found out that the starting salary in manufacturing today in Michigan is $11.26 an hour, with limited benefits.
It's not only the young people making low wages that Hoadley hopes to speak for — the ones with student debt and little prospect of home ownership in the near future. ("What does the idea of owning a house even mean anymore?" asks Hoadley.) His perspective as a openly gay candidate is also one he thinks is one the legislature could use. Only one openly gay person has ever served in the Michigan State House. "There are 110 seats in the House," Hoadley says. "There are 38 seats in the Senate. We've been doing this for about 150 years in Michigan and there's only been one openly gay person serving in history. That says a lot."
Hoadley has also sprinkled his campaign with notably millennial strategizing. With the endless winter Michigan has suffered all season, the state caught a pothole epidemic. Michigan spends the least per capita on infrastructure, a fact you can find on FixMIPotholes.com, a Web site Hoadley's campaign built to gather signatures for additional funds for roads and bridges. Visitors could submit pothole pictures. The site took three days to build, and Hoadley collected about 1,000 signatures. He says that campaigns around the state started similar petitions based on his model. On March 12, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill to provide $100 million to help the state fill potholes this spring.
The thing Hoadley's looking forward to most about working with LaunchProgress is that the group could bring attention to races that people wouldn't pay attention to otherwise.
"Politics is something that people don't necessarily talk about on a regular basis," he says. "Especially young people. If there weren't groups like LaunchProgress to say, 'Hey, look at this race, it's important,' they would go under the radar. And that's exciting."