Gen Z seeks to grow ranks in Congress

Gen Z seeks to grow ranks in Congress

6 minutes, 45 seconds Read

More Generation Z candidates are lining up to run for office this year amid frustration over the country’s aging political class.

Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) became Congress’s first member belonging to Gen Z — the age bracket considered to begin with people born in 1997 or later — after 2022’s midterms.

Now, at least two fellow Gen Z Democrats are vying to join Frost this year as they look to broaden their generation’s presence in the House, where the median age of voting members is around 58 years.

“Young people, as we’ve gotten more and more involved, are frankly devastated that this is the state of government that we are inheriting — and that we have to really pick up this work and try to put the pieces back together,” said Cheyenne Hunt, a 26-year-old Democrat and attorney running in California’s 45th District. 

Hunt cited concerns about the climate crisis, democracy and women’s rights as “existential threats” that older generations in power aren’t addressing with the urgency younger Americans feel.  

“Young people are keenly aware of this situation and are jumping in at unprecedented rates because we know we can’t afford to wait,” she said. 

Hunt will likely go up this year against incumbent Republican Rep. Michelle Steel (R), who won reelection in 2022 by just a few points. If she wins, Hunt would become the first female Gen Z member of Congress.

And after hitting “a myriad of barriers to young women in politics” as she campaigns, Hunt says she’s not surprised that more women in her age bracket aren’t jumping into the arena. 

“Trying to be the first and being the only of anything is always a really difficult experience. And it’s been really frustrating, frankly,” Hunt said, citing gender bias she’s seen along the campaign trail that’s been exacerbated by her youth. “I have seen folks really hesitate to support me and had conversations after the fact that exposed that a big part of that is internalized sexism.”  

Hunt, who boasts more than 93,000 followers on the video-sharing app TikTok, said she’s also trying to break apart assumptions about young people as some resist taking the demographic seriously in politics. 

“You can be a young woman, and have social media, and be more than just an influencer,” Hunt said.  

Across the country, in Maryland, state Del. Joe Vogel (D) is running to become the first openly LGBTQ member of Gen Z elected to Congress.  

Vogel said he initially got into politics after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, “frustrated by the inaction” on issues such as gun violence, which has directly impacted many young Americans’ experience at school in recent years.  

“I think our entire generation is having this moment where we’re channeling that energy and channeling that urgency into having more political representation in terms of the issues,” said Vogel, who is also 26 years old.  

Vogel made headlines when he was elected to his state’s General Assembly as one of the first Gen Z members in the Legislature. Now, he’s attempting to jump into the House to succeed Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), who is running instead for the Senate. 

If elected, Vogel would be just the 14th openly LGBTQ person to serve in either chamber

Arguing for the importance of younger perspectives in elected office, Vogel pointed to projections of the catastrophic climate consequences that could hit by around 2050

“By 2050, I’m still going to be younger than your average member of Congress,” he said. “So that is a perspective that I think is desperately needed in the halls of Congress.” 

Hunt and Vogel both just barely make the constitutional age cutoff for the House, which requires representatives to be at least 25 years old.  

The House has gotten slightly younger across the last few sessions of Congress, according to Pew Research, but baby boomers and members of the Silent Generation — together, people born in 1964 or earlier — still make up roughly half the body.  

In the Senate, where the minimum age is 30 years old, boomers and members of the Silent Generation make up nearly three-quarters of the chamber.  

Millennials make up just around 12 percent of the House, according to the Pew data, with Frost as the only Gen Z member.

But although there’s a minimum age to work in Congress, there’s no upper limit — a fact that’s come under heightened scrutiny amid discourse about the age and health of lawmakers and other leaders.  

That issue took center stage in recent months due to growing concerns about the 81-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the recent death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) at age 90 after three decades in the Senate.

Polling suggests most Americans support the idea of a mental competency test for politicians over 75, as well as an age cap for presidential candidates.  

“America’s government is run as a gerontocracy, and young people are wildly underrepresented,” said Juan Ramiro Sarmiento, national press secretary at Run For Something, a progressive group focused on recruiting progressive candidates up and down the ballot. 

Under current economic and social strains, young people are experiencing a “vastly different” America than their older counterparts, Sarmiento said. 

“We need people that are closer to the problem,” Sarmiento said. “And they’re closer to the solutions.” 

President Biden’s 2024 reelection bid has been plagued by concerns about his age as he tries for four more years in the White House. At 81, Biden is the oldest sitting president in history — while 77-year-old former President Trump, the top GOP contender, is not far behind him.  

But Vogel swung to Biden’s defense, arguing the incumbent is the best option on the table to represent younger voters’ values in 2024.  

“President Biden’s experience and his record of delivering for young people … I’m excited to see him reelected. Because the alternative is one that is really a doomsday scenario for our generation: reelecting Donald Trump,” Vogel said.  

Frost said at the White House back in September that Biden “wants to be and is a president that understands the power of young people.”

The politically active demographic has been seen as a linchpin for Democrats in recent cycles, and younger voters helped usher Biden to victory in 2020, when roughly 6 in 10 of the under-30 voter group cast their ballots for him, according to AP VoteCast.

But in addition to pushing for people in power to take action on the issues that matter to young Americans, many are putting themselves in the ring to represent their generation.  

“We have seen some growing interest from young people in running for office,” said Alberto Medina, spokesperson for Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.  

Economic and social barriers to entry may be more impactful on Gen Z and millennials thinking about a campaign than on an older candidate, though, Medina noted — and there are racial and gender inequities that may be compounding reluctance to run. 

But issues such as climate change and abortion are “really the driving force” for young Americans’ engagement in politics, Medina said.  

A 2022 Tufts study found that the rate of young people seeking elected office had gone up in the previous decade to more than 20 percent of youth who said they’d consider running for office. 

That’s why even as some data suggests younger Americans are trending away from party affiliation, 57 percent of Americans aged 18-34 say they’re “extremely likely” to vote this year, according to Tufts research from late November.  

Among those extremely likely to cast a ballot, 51 percent say they’ll back the Democratic candidate. 

“There is an appetite. There’s a hunger from folks of all generations … for a new generation of leaders, not just because we’re younger, but because we offer a new style of politics,” Vogel said. 

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how old you are. The status quo is holding everyone back,” he added. 

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