Ricky Gill wasn't like other 17-year-olds. In 2004, instead of goofing around after school, he was the one public high school student in California the governor selected to serve on the state board of education. Now, as a 24-year-old, he is running for Congress-while going to law school. The minimum age to be a member of the House is 25; Gill, a Republican, will turn 25 in May 2012, one month before the primary.
"A lot of people think I'm young now, and I wouldn't contest that, but I was really young then," he said, thinking of his teenage term on the school board. The years between that stint of public service and congressional candidacy have been filled with work on his family's vineyard, college at Princeton University, a summer on Capitol Hill, studies at the University of California at Berkeley law school, and serving as legal counsel for the Oakland A's. Gill is the youngest of three brothers in a family of first-generation immigrants. His parents are physicians, his father from Uganda, his mother from India. Both came to the United States as adults.
The average age in Congress is 57. But a striking number of millennials-the generation aged roughly between 20 and 30 years old-have filed to run for House seats in 2012. A rash of long-shot candidates pop up every election cycle, but these youngsters-who are filing early and forgoing conventional paths to Congress like time in a state legislature, or a few more years between college graduation and a House campaign-may actually win, given the record frustration voters are voicing toward incumbents. The young candidates would form a second wave of generational newcomers following the young Republicans elected in 2010, about a half dozen members now in their early thirties.
Gill is challenging three-term Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney, 60, in California's newly drawn 9th Congressional District, a competitive seat representing the mostly agricultural San Joaquin Valley that The Cook Political Report says leans Democratic.
Thanks to redistricting, McNerney found himself living outside the district (he currently serves in the state's 11th Congressional District), while Gill has grown up in it. (McNerney says he plans to move to the district.) Gill also has raised $756,000, according to the Federal Election Commission, $115,000 more than McNerney-a potentially major indicator of the candidate's viability. As a result, the National Republican Congressional Committee has named him in its "Young Guns" program for up-and-coming candidates who have met certain benchmarks-and its chairman, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, reportedly emails Gill every day to check on the race.
Millennials aren't very good at turning out for elections, but they backed President Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 margin in the 2008 election. Their political angst has found its most recently visible expression in the Occupy Wall Street protests, yet the majority of 20-somethings who have filed to run for Congress so far are Republicans.
The candidates I interviewed said they didn't feel that their generation's interests had representation in Congress. The "youth unemployment" rate (16- to 24-year-olds) is 18.1 percent, according to the Department of Labor, and the share of young people who are employed is at its lowest level on record. The millennial generation expects to bear the brunt of entitlement cuts, and very few expect to receive Social Security benefits at all. Twenty-somethings face a difficult credit market, where securing a mortgage is not a given, and they usually emerge from college with significant debt as college tuition has soared.
The anecdotal stories from young congressional candidates parallel recent polling data from Generation Opportunity (see sidebar below), an organization that studies millennials and the economy. Sixty-nine percent of millennials said political leaders do not reflect the interests of young Americans. Sixty-six percent are "deeply concerned" about the national debt, and 76 percent said they would like to see a reduction in federal spending. (That, however, contrasts with a study on millennials that the Pew Research Center conducted this year that showed only 35 percent of millennials favored smaller government.) The researchers also found 69 percent of millennials prefer cutting federal spending to raising taxes to balance the budget.
Paul Conway, former chief of staff at the Labor Department during the Bush administration, heads up Generation Opportunity, and he analyzed some of the results of the poll. "We have a generation now who has gone through a tremendous amount," he said, citing 9/11, two wars, and economic collapse. "They see less in their wallet, they see their own friends unemployed, and feel they can't make payments into their future."
Twenty-four-year-old Weston Wamp believes, "The debt-paying generation will rise to the occasion in this country." Wamp is running for a seat in eastern Tennessee once held by his father, eight-term Republican Rep. Zach Wamp. The elder Wamp made an unsuccessful bid for governor of Tennessee in 2010, and Republican Chuck Fleischmann won the seat Wamp vacated.
Wamp started his own marketing firm in Chattanooga, Tenn., after graduating from the University of Tennessee in 2009. He works about half time on his business and half time on his campaign. He will turn the qualifying age of 25 in March 2012. Wamp denied that he feels entitled to his dad's seat, but said that he absorbed political knowledge and wisdom by growing up around his dad and his dad's friends. "[Republican Sen. Tom] Coburn is like an uncle to me," Wamp said. "Frankly, I think they need some reinforcements from our generationâ€‰...â€‰the framers of the Constitution made the age 25 for a reason."
Wamp's contention with Fleischmann is that he votes along party lines. Fleischmann has voted with his party 95 percent of the time, but he bucked Republican leadership on at least one major vote, casting a "no" on the debt ceiling deal along with 65 of the more conservative members of the House. "Another thing our generation has to bring to the table is a willingness to work across party lines," Wamp said, though "not compromise for the sake of compromise." Bipartisanship is only imagined on Capitol Hill right now, but it's an aspiration shared by other millennial candidates. Brett Lindstrom, 30, running as a Republican for a seat in Nebraska, commented, "You do have to work across party linesâ€‰...â€‰I'm more than happy to listen to Democrats' ideas."
Gill and Wamp are bachelors, but others like Lindstrom are married and brand new fathers. On average, millennials may be delaying life decisions like marriage, but Lindstrom said almost all of his friends are married: "Maybe it's partly the Midwest." Two years ago he and his wife Leigh received invitations to 17 weddings in one year, and "now we're all having kids at the same time."
Lindstrom, who was a quarterback for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, finds little time to sleep between his regular job as a financial adviser, the campaign, and caring for his 4-month-old daughter. Lindstrom's wife also works full-time, while family members help care for their baby during the day. "It sounds like it's crazy, but it's not undoable," Lindstrom said. He admits he and his wife have had some "discussions" about balancing the campaign with a new baby, and related lack of sleep.
On the campaign trail he's taken part in seven parades so far, and he's learning to be more comfortable approaching people in a cafÃ© and introducing himself. When he's not campaigning or being a father, his role as a financial adviser has him working with retirees who he says are often as fearful of their economic future as his generation is. "The generation above us, they haven't been very good stewards of [public] money," he said.
On the other side of the country, another sleep-deprived father of a 5-month-old is running for Congress. Evan Feinberg, 27, moved his young family back to his roots near Pittsburgh, Pa., to run in the primary against Rep. Tim Murphy, whom Feinberg terms an "Arlen Specter Republican."
Feinberg, a Grove City College graduate, worked at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and then on the staff of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. His wife Sarah is an officer in the Marine Corps Reserves and an Iraq War veteran. Aside from working on Capitol Hill, Feinberg's political experience is limited to chairing the College Republicans, but he brushes off criticisms about his young age, calling it an "asset." "[Murphy]'s going to have the bigger problem convincing folks that his age and experience qualify him for serving in Washington," Feinberg said.
But the question of experience is a serious one. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., won his seat one week after his 29th birthday, and for his first two terms he was the youngest member of Congress. He's in his fourth term now. Even though McHenry was young when he came into office, he had already served as an assistant to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao during the Bush administration and served a term in the North Carolina General Assembly.
"You have to have some amount of experience to be effective," McHenry said. "It's the nature of the world-you have to prove yourself as a young person no matter what career path you choose." He ticked off the 30-somethings who won seats in the 2010 election and their political experience: 35-year-old Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., served on the Montgomery city council; 39-year-old Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., was mayor of Corning, N.Y.; and others served in state legislatures. (He added that starting a business and starting a family are good experience, too.) McHenry is glad to have some other younger colleagues now. "You have more 30-somethings on the Republican side than I think we've ever had," he said. As a result of the 2010 elections, the average age of House Republicans dropped from 56.5 to 54.9, while the average age of House Democrats rose from 58 to 60.2.
"While some may question the credibility of millennials on things, that's what the campaign process is about," said Generation Opportunity's Conway. "But as a nation, we don't question the credibility of someone who is 17 or 18 years old who signs up to fight for our country."
Fresh from the battlefield of the financial sector, Ethan Wingfield, 26, is running as a Republican against Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler in western North Carolina. Wingfield, born and raised in Shuler's district, left North Carolina to attend Brown University.
In 2006, his senior year, Wingfield was president of Brown's Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), a student ministry affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, when Brown suspended the organization, saying the 200-member group maintained a "culture of contempt and dishonesty." Wingfield and RUF eventually took Brown's action to the press, and after a six-month dispute, the university restored the student ministry's membership. Wingfield graduated, started his own technology company, sold it, and joined Capital One, where he rose to become an adviser to the CEO. Since then he and his wife Jacqueline have moved back to North Carolina, and he is about to formally kick off his campaign.
Three-term congressman Shuler has an uphill battle for reelection, since the Republican state legislature is enacting redistricting that will cut out much of his Democratic support. The Republican primary roster has started to fill with challengers.
Unlike most candidates, Wingfield doesn't gloss over the work ahead: "Primarying or running in a general against an incumbent is a really tough way to win." But he knows other facts: Some counties in western North Carolina are dealing with unemployment percentages in the double digits. "I look around at my peers and my friends I grew up with, and they're really struggling," he said. "You used to be able to go to school, graduate, work hard, buy a house, settle down, have a kid. That American dream seems to be disintegrating before our eyes."
Capital One, notes Wingfield, did not take any federal bailouts, and added thousands of jobs while the rest of the economy was shrinking. He thinks the federal government could learn about budgeting from the private sector. Wingfield wants to take on another congressional practice-budgeting via emergency spending legislation that's effective for a few months rather than passing an actual budget for a fiscal year.
"As a young person, I'm free to take a 50-year time horizon, because I'm going to live in that world," Wingfield said. "Being a finance person, from a fiscal perspective, I think we are way closer to the edge than most people realize.â€‰...â€‰I really do think that we have a limited window of time to make serious changes. If I wait 10 or 20 years to do it, I think that window would have passed. Why not do it now?"