Faces of the Democratic Future

Faces of the Democratic Future

Young leaders on the future of their party.

September 4, 2014

Demographers and political prognosticators like to talk about the rising "Obama electorate." Majority-minority, more liberal on social and financial issues alike than their forebears, this young cohort stands poised to radically transform the country's politics in the decades to come. For the July/August issue of The American Prospect magazine, we asked rising progressive leaders what they think about the future of the Democratic Party—and how it needs to change.


Svante Myrick, age 26

Mayor of Ithaca, New York
Ithaca, New York

I’d like to see the party elect a woman president. When Barack Obama was elected, I was a young mixed-race kid with a strange name, being raised by a white mother. It changed what I thought was possible for my life. After I was elected mayor here at 24, I remember a mother telling me the following story. She and her adopted son, who is black and around 15 years old, were coming to city hall. In the elevator, an elderly white woman looked at him and said, “Are you the mayor?” When the mother told me this story, I said, “Well, come on, I don’t look 15 years old.” She said, “You don’t understand. He’s gotten on elevators before and had older women jump off—he’s had people cross the street when they see him coming because he’s black. He’s been confused for a lot of things, but this is the first time he’s been confused for a figure of authority.” That’s powerful. Obama has changed the life outcomes, through his example, for millions of black men. His family has done the same for black families. He’s changed the way we think about a black family in this country. I think that our first female president is going to do the same thing for young women.

Another thing I’d like to see the party do: I think the war on drugs is the new Jim Crow, and it’s failed. It’s cost us a trillion dollars to fight it. It’s cost people their lives. Jails have swollen with people who have been put away for years for nonviolent offenses. The overall result is that drug use is still rampant in this country. The Democratic Party should approach the drug problem at the root, which means treating it as a public-health issue, getting people who are addicted to drugs off drugs, getting young people to never start using drugs in the first place, and regulating the drug market and taxing it so we can spend the revenue on things like schools and infrastructure.

We should decriminalize marijuana. The usage rate is incredibly high, but the enforcement is uneven: You’re four times more likely to get arrested for marijuana use if you’re black than if you’re white, even though white folks use the drug at the same rate as black folks.


Joe Neguse, age 30

Democratic nominee for Colorado secretary of state
Bloomfield, Colorado

We, as a party, have a vision that appeals to a broad spectrum of people, and that vision is a government that works for them. One way to do that is through higher-education reform. We need to make education much more affordable through a more robust system of public financing. It’s about showing that we care about opportunity for everyone, and making sure that everyone’s voice is heard. We have so many people coming to this country looking for opportunity, and we know that higher education is the ticket to upward mobility. We have this amazing system of state-funded universities and community colleges, but students are still struggling to afford them. We need to look for more ways to make that education affordable for students. If they have to take out massive student loans, when these students graduate, they won’t be able to contribute as fully to the economy and buy a home. There are solutions, and Democrats need to embrace them. There was recently some discussion in the Senate of legislation to lower the student-loan interest rate. That’s an example of doing what we can to make sure that higher education remains affordable and accessible to everybody. That’s a message that will resonate with young people regardless of party, and it may help draw in some of the young voters who aren’t affiliated with either party.

The right to vote—the right to shape the future of our communities—is under attack all across the country. I think we all agree that we’ve never solved a problem with less democracy. It cannot be a partisan issue. Prior to law school, I helped create a nonprofit foundation called New Era Colorado, which has registered tens of thousands of young folks and championed efforts to make voting easier in Colorado—for example, online voter registration, which has been immensely successful in our state. People want to be able to vote; they want that power. We need to be the party that gives them their rights back, not because it might help us win but because providing equal opportunity has always been the central pillar of the Democratic Party.


Stephanie Chang, age 30

Candidate, Michigan House District 6
Detroit, Michigan

It would be great to have the Democratic Party do a better job of recruiting young progressive candidates, especially women of color. Studies show that women need to be asked several times before they run for office, which was certainly the case for me—because so many of us don’t think about it as an option to begin with, it takes several people encouraging us before we seriously consider it. It’s doubly hard for women of color, because we don’t necessarily see ourselves represented. I only decided to run after my friend Rashida Tlaib, who currently represents Michigan’s Sixth District, asked me to. Initially, I said no, but eventually I said I would do it because I realized what an amazing opportunity it was to make a difference for my community.

It would say a lot for the Democratic Party to reach out to people and help build a pipeline of young people and women running for elected office. One thing that I want to do, starting with high school and middle school, is to get young women of color in my district to think about what the problems in their community are and how they can be involved in addressing them. Learning how to write a bill, learning how policy affects us, shadowing days—things like that. We need to start earlier instilling the idea that this is something that is possible for young women.


Val Vilott, age 28

Feminist activist and board president of the DC Abortion Fund
Washington, D.C.

I am a Democrat, and I vote for Democrats, and I volunteer for Democrats. I’ve been engaged in campaigns for Democratic candidates for my entire young-adult life. But although I have faith in the party, I think it could be doing much better work. There’s been a lack of proactive national legislation on reproductive issues and issues that have to do with women and families. And I’m not just talking about abortion here. In general, remedies for women and families like paycheck fairness and child care have been fantastically unsuccessful.

I think a lot of the unwillingness to dig in on these issues has to do with diversity. Some Democrats are worried about being targeted by anti-choice activists and organizations. But many Democratic politicians are white men who aren’t comfortable talking about abortion, so they shy away from it. It’s become ingrained in some of their minds that reproductive issues aren’t winning issues. They may believe it’s too controversial to talk about on the campaign trail. And when they don’t talk about it on the campaign trail, they don’t have to do anything about it once they get into office. That does the party a great disservice. Reproductive issues like abortion and family planning matter to people—it’s not cerebral or ethereal for them.

I reject the notion that abortion is an unwinnable issue. Just look at the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race. The Democrats made reproductive choice a huge part of their strategy. Of course, they embraced abortion during that campaign because they couldn’t avoid it. Bob McDonnell, the previous governor, made no bones about supporting incredibly aggressive anti-choice policies. My argument is, why do we wait for a radical anti-choice politician to take office for a few years and do serious damage in the state? It’s pretty despicable if we only start to act because we can see people suffering as a result of bad policy.

I worry that in some ways the Democratic Party is becoming—well, I’m trying to think of a nicer way to say a “cult of personality.” You look back to 2007 and 2008, when Barack Obama had just emerged onto the scene and had this pitched battle in the primaries against Hillary Clinton. The party’s future felt invested in these individual people and their ability to lead. I don’t really think that’s the party’s job. Often, when candidates get into office, the issues they campaigned on fall by the wayside. It’s the party’s responsibility to push for those issues. What’s happening now with reproductive choice in the states where conservatives are pushing for extreme anti-choice legislation is a great example of how the Democrats could take the wheel. They need to introduce proactive legislation. Occasionally make them fight on your terms. If we can get into a situation where the Republicans or the anti-choice activists are as distracted by our good legislation as we are by their bad legislation, then we’ll bring things onto more equal ground.

Bringing more diversity into the party will help spur that change. But Democratic Party leaders have to commit to it. There’s not a lack of people or options out there. There are potential candidates for office who are incredibly talented—people of color, women, people with different backgrounds and experiences who would make fantastic legislators. But the party isn’t good at identifying people who need more resources to get off the ground. Bringing more diversity into the party will require a long-game attitude, because who do you look at for national office? You look at people who are doing well at the state level. Who do you look at for the state level? You look at people who are doing well at the county level or the local level. And how do you get those people into office? You search for folks who are active in their community. That’s where the Democrats should be focusing their resources, and when the party does become more diverse, it will be easier for Democrats to talk about issues like abortion and family planning and paycheck fairness. They’ll have the broad range of experience necessary to take a stand on these issues and not just tackle them when it’s absolutely necessary.


Cristina Tzintzún, age 32

Executive director, Workers Defense Project
Austin, Texas

Right now, there’s a real interest within the Democratic Party about the Latino vote and what it could mean, which is great. But there doesn’t seem to be an in-depth understanding of all the issues and complexities in the Latino community, which isn’t monolithic. You can see this happening in Texas. There have been recent efforts to try to build good Latino Democratic candidates. But it doesn’t go beyond the candidate or the election. There’s no grassroots investment, no lasting infrastructure.

In Texas, the focus on the Latino vote also means that we forget the African American vote. I was at a meeting recently where people were talking about turning the state blue. There were 60 to 80 people, mostly Latino and white, and there was only one African American in the room. I said, “I have a problem with this,” and they said, “Well, it’s not really a problem because black people vote, so we don’t really have to worry about that.” Well, that in itself is a problem because they’re taking a core constituency for granted. It means they’re not serious about investing in leadership or an agenda that means something to the people who voted for them.

Folks who want to see Texas turn blue or at least purple are investing millions of dollars in elections. But most of the money that comes into Texas goes to the statewide races. There’s less investment in the local races. But that’s not only where we can elect candidates but also where we can run real policies where people can see what makes a difference in their lives. If you look at a state like Texas, every major city, for the most part, is blue—Houston, Austin, San Antonio. In Austin, we recently won a living wage for construction workers who are working for companies that get tax incentives from the state. We’re still not winning statewide races, but rather than focusing on those races and putting all our money in those races, you can use the cities, those pockets of blue, to experiment and develop good Democratic candidates and good, innovative policy.

There is a huge amount of support for economic-justice issues. What the Democrats have done recently about the minimum wage has been great and has struck a chord with a lot of people. But there are other issues they could be pushing more: The student-debt crisis, talking about the retirement crisis in this country and the fact that the Republican Party has no plan besides keeping millions of people in debt. In the last six months, the Democratic Party, nationally, has been more progressive. If we were to focus on that in a smarter way, we could actually pull some of the libertarians. If you look at what a lot of people are upset about in the Tea Party and what issues are resonating with them, it was race-baiting a lot of the time, but it was race-baiting about economics. We didn’t really have an alternative narrative. We weren’t even trying to talk about it on the left, except for Occupy Wall Street. If the Democratic Party could get in front of those issues, it would not only be able to bring along the progressive base that it’s already supporting but it could bring along the entire country to enact that kind of legislation. But there’s still a long way to go. It’s a great campaign strategy, but we need to be building the community groups and the labor support to enact the legislation that will make a difference in people’s lives.


Brian Sims, age 35

Representative for Pennsylvania’s 182nd District
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I would like to see the Democratic Party get back to promoting thoughtful gun registration. Maybe we’re having to pick and choose the battles we think we can win, given the Republican Party’s hard-line opposition. But it’s unfortunate that the Democrats have backed off on guns. We’ve seen more movement on thoughtful gun regulations from past Republican presidents than we have from President Obama. In light of all the mass shootings in the last half-decade, I would like to see the Democratic Party step up and say, “Hey, listen, where America is on the Second Amendment is costing us lives.”

I’m the son of two retired lieutenant colonels in the Army. I did not grow up in this pristine, granola background unexposed to guns and weapons. For the vast majority of Americans, gun use is a familial thing—it’s heritage. It’s not about what you kill or how you kill it or the size of the bullet; it’s something you did with your grandfather and father, something you do with your family. I recognize that. If we’re not going to address actual gun violence because of the culture and heritage that people have with guns, we’re not doing ourselves any justice.

Every couple of weeks and months, we see instances in which background checks could have prevented violence. We see that allowing cities and urban environments to tailor their gun laws based on data could reduce violence. Yet we don’t do those things. We could also pass more laws to prevent something called “straw purchases.” We see this all the time where guns that are involved in crimes are traced back to a purchaser who wasn’t the person who committed the crime, but frankly, they purchased that gun knowing it would be given or sold to somebody who would commit a crime. States need to have stronger straw-purchase laws.

Any legislator who introduces a law that is seen as either anti-gun or anti–Second Amendment knows it’s going to go nowhere, so I don’t see many legislators introduce them. I’m proud to be in a state where we’re trying very hard, but I don’t see a legitimate effort either to control guns or even require background checks. We know that around 90 percent of Americans support background checks, yet legislation isn’t going anywhere at the federal level.


Jane Kim, age 36

San Francisco Board of Supervisors, District 6
San Francisco, California

One of my greatest hopes for the Obama administration was not necessarily about the policy changes it could bring but that Obama would inspire organizing at the local level. I think that’s where you’re going to see long-term change and progress for the Democratic Party’s agenda. Funding and investing in organizing is so important, and it’s something that the Republican Party has been very effective at. If you are not winning the local discussion, it’s hard to move forward nationally. I’m biased, of course, because I am a legislator at a local level, but localities can be tremendously effective in challenging the status quo and winning progressive reforms.

There are a couple of things I’m really proud of here in San Francisco. We’re pushing forward with a $15-per-hour minimum wage. We’ve declared that we’re a sanctuary city, which means we don’t allow local law enforcement to harass or identify immigrants. California state and national funding for public education is terrible—California ranks 49th in the country for spending on education per student. But San Francisco has stepped up and said, if the state and the national government are not going to fully fund our public schools, localities will. This year, the city gave $77 million to our public-education system on top of what it’s gotten from the state and federal governments. Whether it is ensuring that we have affordable health care for all or that we’re able to pass something like comprehensive immigration reform, Democrats have an opportunity to show that we can pass progressive measures locally that can then spread nationally.

It’s also important to support Democrats in purple or red states because those are the ones that are going to make more of a difference. Take, for example, campaigns like “Turning Texas Blue.” The demographics in Texas are changing; the population is becoming younger and more Latino. The hope is to register young and Latino citizens to be regular voters. If we can get more Democrats elected that represent our perspective, then we can pass things like comprehensive immigration reform. The key is, again, organizing. What works in Texas might not work elsewhere, but every state has to organize. Nothing ever replaces good old-fashioned door-to-door, pavement-pounding community organizing.


Crisanta Duran, age 33

Representative, Colorado House District 5
Denver, Colorado

It is scary, quite frankly, to see the disparity between the rich and the poor and to see the gap widen every year. I hope ensuring Americans’ basic economic security will be the Democratic Party’s top issue going forward. The solution, I think, lies in job training and higher education. That can be anything from a vocational program to a two-year degree to a four-year degree on up. Then we have to ensure that when we do invest in education, we’re able to produce results, that students graduating from institutions of higher ed are able to get well--paying jobs. We need to make sure we meet the needs of businesses and ensure that people have access to tools that will allow them to succeed and get good-paying jobs.

Another important area the Democratic Party could work on is making sure that people are able to balance their family and professional life. One of the areas I’ve focused on is trying to ensure that child care is more affordable for more Colorado families. Right now, the state is ranked sixth in terms of the cost of child care, according to a recent study. It’s a problem particularly for women, who are more likely to leave the workforce or limit their time in the workforce due to child-raising. We put a lot of money in when someone is part of our corrections system, in prison. If we could start investing in people’s lives at the front end, in the long run we will be better. It would be incredible to get to a point where every family could afford quality child care.


Joe Dinkin, age 30

Communications director, Working Families
New York, New York

People call the Democratic Party a big tent. I worry sometimes that the tent is too big, that it has room for some views that progressives find distasteful. There are plenty of elected Democrats who think it’s enough to call yourself progressive if you support marriage equality or something like that. But it’s not enough to support marriage equality—you also have to be against economic inequality. You have to challenge the power of the 1 percent. If Democrats want to capture young people’s votes and enthusiasm going forward, they’re going to have to show that they’re willing to take on student debt, willing to raise taxes on the rich, willing to lift up standards for working people. Young people are more likely to be economically insecure. They’re more likely to work in minimum-wage jobs, more likely to work in the service industry, more likely not to have paid sick days, more likely to live in cities. They need to feel like the Democrats are out there fighting against political and economic inequality. And the Democrats need to make a connection between political and economic inequality—the outsize role big money plays in our economy and our democracy.

Dark money is increasingly making politicians chase big donors. They may see some short-term advantage—they might have enough money to run this election campaign—but it’s going to alienate voters in the long term. The closer we get to a situation where we have two parties controlled by different factions of the 1 percent, the less appealing the Democrats will be, especially for young people.

Elected Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to embrace big ideas. The Tea Party is the dominant ideology within the Republican Party, and progressives don’t have that kind of control in the Democratic Party right now. But they should. The $15 minimum wage seemed fringe until the fast-food workers started working on it, and now it’s helping move up the minimum wage across the country. We need to be giving more attention to state legislatures and city councils. Those are the bodies that make some of the laws that affect people’s lives the most. That’s where you can prove that progressive models of governance work.


Andrew Gillum, age 34

Tallahassee city commissioner and candidate for mayor
Tallahassee, Florida

The Democratic Party has a bad habit of reaching back in order to go forward. We haven’t demonstrated a lot of willingness to bring new people into the party—fresher faces don’t always get an opportunity to lead. If we are trying to become a party of the future, we’ve got to do a better job at building a pipeline of candidates who look like the people they are seeking to represent. In Florida, by and large we are a party that looks like the people of the state. I’m not sure our leadership reflects the same diversity.

When I decided to run for city council, I didn’t have any party leadership come to me and say, “Go for it.” I took the initiative. I was never contacted by a U.S. senator or representative who said, “We think you have a bright future. What can we do to put you in a place to be successful?” We almost need a sort of Karl Rove of the Democratic Party, someone who looks at a state and maps out where our greatest moments of opportunity are and who the folks we should be building a fundraising venture for are. What sort of skills do we need to make sure this individual has so that when we’re ready to run them for high state office they are successful? We don’t always have the luxury of five- and ten-year planning. Maybe it is that as we approach election cycles, we survey where the talent is, and we put it up and out and give it a shot. Marco Rubio is one example of how the right was able to do it on their side. The state Republican Party was more than ready to give him that shot. I think Democrats around the state would be ready to do the same for new talent. We just have to embrace it, not eat our young or lay them out to pasture after one or two unsuccessful bids.


Kesha Ram, age 27

Vermont state representative, Chittenden 3-4 District
Burlington, Vermont

We’re not doing enough to address income inequality and climate change. They are intractable issues, but we’re not even having the conversations to begin to address them. I find that concerning. I think part of the problem stems from campaign finance, which is an issue the Democratic Party—both parties, in fact—have failed to lead on. We’re beholden in a lot of ways to funders.

We need to have a broader conversation about how to increase revenue. At the very least, I’d like to see the national party hold the line on important social programs like income assistance, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. These programs are deteriorating, and our generation feels less and less as though we can count on them. They shouldn’t be crumbling before us; we should be bolstering them.

There’s a lot more we could do to create a fair tax system: limiting the number of deductions people can take, stopping people from taking advantage of loopholes. We have to figure out how to tax a 21st-century economy in a fair way. We’re now a service-based economy and an online economy. That leads to a lot of lost revenue and puts our brick-and-mortar stores at a real disadvantage. I would like to see the Main Street Fairness Act, which requires out-of-state retailers to collect taxes on products shipped in state, passed. Access to higher education is another area where we can address inequality. I think we’re seeing a form of educational apartheid in this country right now. It’s becoming more and more unaffordable for the average American family to send their kids to college. Kids graduate with so much debt, and it affects choices they have to make when they graduate. We need new dedicated revenue sources to pay for higher education. In Vermont, we allow high-school students to take college courses while still in school, which increases access. We need to increase savings programs. Overall, we really need to address the imbalance of money being put in corrections that we could be investing in early-childhood education and college affordability.


Eric Lesser, age 29

Former White House aide running for State Senate in Massachusetts
Wilbraham, Massachusetts

Starting in your home is the most fulfilling way, I think, to find good in the political process. It’s sometimes hard to pierce through the cynicism that’s bred by Washington and the culture there. There are a lot of complicated reasons there’s so much polarization in Washington now, but generally, the more that people work locally and the more that people are oriented toward concretely doing things rather than talking about them, the less strident the discussion becomes.

Once you leave Washington, you talk to people who are in their communities trying to make a difference. Your hope is reignited. When the issues are your school systems and your roads and your senior center and your parks and recreation department, politics isn’t an abstraction. Politics is directly touching you and impacting your life, and the noise and the cynicism and the negativity evaporate, because there’s no time and the stakes are too high. You’ve got to work together and create some solutions.

Understanding the real-life consequences of decisions that are made in Washington is essential for policymakers. If your entire prism is just working in Washington, it’s easy to lose track of how that work connects to people’s lives. When people work locally, there’s a deep appreciation for when Congress fails to pass a budget—what that actually means for people in the school system, or for the water and sewer authority that needs a grant, or for a police department that needs help hiring officers.

I think the Obama campaign was an example of a time when people did believe things could change and that our political system could improve. I worked on the campaign, and in all those states, everywhere we went, we were greeted by young people just like me who were deeply inspired by Barack Obama’s message and who viewed the political process as a way to solve our country’s problems. One of the jobs I used to have was unloading all the suitcases off the plane and getting them to the hotel room each night. Sometimes we would get in very late, and you’d be on a tarmac in Wisconsin or Minnesota or Ohio, and it’d be freezing cold in the middle of the night, and we were always greeted by large groups of enthusiastic volunteers who couldn’t have been happier to be there to help. It showed that with all the pessimism about politics now, and all the cynicism about public life now, there is still a well of people who remain optimistic, and ultimately optimism is a more powerful tool than pessimism. Being involved is always going to be more impactful than not.


Atima Omara, age 33

President, Young Democrats of America
Washington, D.C.

The Democrats’ success in the next couple of cycles depends on whether they commit to a strong message of economic justice. It’s an issue that can bring together a lot of different communities. Working-class families, millennials, people of color—they’re all hurting in this economy. You can make a case that women’s issues, like reproductive health care, are issues of economic fairness; women shouldn’t have to pay more for health care than men because they need to buy birth control. Climate change is becoming a bigger and bigger economic issue. But it also depends on how serious we’re going to be—if we’re going to actually enact policies that affect income inequality, like paycheck fairness and raising the minimum wage and making sure workers have parental leave. We can’t just talk about it. We have to do it.

The Democrats need to think about how we situate ourselves, knowing that we’re going into the next couple of elections without Obama on the ticket. The Obama campaign is what turned Virginia blue. African Americans were inspired to move to the polls in a way that they haven’t been in a while. The same goes for Latinos. Young people were really engaged in the past two presidential cycles, but they’re not midterm voters. The challenge is to keep that momentum going. We need to grow and thrive as a party post-Obama. The way to do that is to tackle economic inequality, inside the party and out.

We also have to make sure that our commitment to diversity, whether it’s racial or economic, isn’t something we just talk about. Right now, many people who want to get their start in politics have to intern for free. If you want to work on Capitol Hill or get some experience on a campaign, you have to start with an unpaid job so you can get connections. The only people I know who were able to get jobs from unpaid internships are from wealthy families. Their parents could float them while they waited for an opportunity. That means that a huge swath of white, working-class people and people of color can’t even get in the door. If you’re committed to diversity and bringing people from all walks of life into the party, don’t ask them to work for nothing.

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