Youth-fueled campaigns

Political candidates turn to young staffers to energize campaigns

Walking into Paul Ostrow’s campaign office feels more like setting foot in a meeting of the local chapter of College Democrats than the headquarters of a congressional candidate.

Nine of the Fifth Congressional District campaigner’s 10 full-time field staff members are under age 25, and they’re joined by a half-dozen interns who work several days a week in exchange for college credit. That means most of the campaign staffers who busily work at computers in the cavernous office space that used to be home to the Union Bar weren’t even born when retiring U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo (DFL-Minn.) took office in 1978 and have never voted in a presidential election that George W. Bush didn’t win.

But they are the engine that drives the Ostrow campaign for Congress. And they’re not alone. Young adults are the driving force behind a number of political campaigns in Minneapolis and across the nation.

“It’s not just as paper pushers. Some of the most innovative practices and best thinking about how we do this work for the long haul is really coming from young people,” said Amalia Anderson, project director for the Main Street Project, a nonpartisan grassroots effort based in the Whittier neighborhood that aims to increase political participation among rural constituents.

Because young people largely form the field staffs of many local campaigns and will do much of the door knocking and make many of the phone calls, they are who voters will most likely have contact with this election season. Anderson has worked with young campaign staffers and organized volunteers while working for several different campaign efforts.

She said the old notion that young people are apathetic about politics simply isn’t true. In 2004, young adults ages 18-29 voted in the highest percentage they had since 1992, according to the Pew Research Center. Because of the sharp increase – the turnout rate among people ages 18-24 increased from 36 percent to 47 percent – political parties are lavishing attention on young people in this midterm election year and are investing in staff and legislation geared toward a younger generation, according to a July 16 Washington Post analysis.

The Minnesota DFL, for example, is advertising its open field organizer position on the website of Campaign Corps, a grassroots program dedicated to politically empowering young people. And Ostrow, currently the Minneapolis City Councilmember for the 1st Ward, recruited a number of his younger field workers by posting advertisements on his own website as well as places like Craig’s List, an Internet bulletin board.

The push to attract young people to these campaigns transcends political boundaries. Jenny Sliwinski, a 22-year-old who will begin graduate school at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management this fall, is running the show as the campaign director for Southwest resident Alan Fine, the Republican candidate in the Fifth Congressional District race. She had Fine as an instructor during her undergraduate career at the University of Minnesota and was inspired enough by his philosophies to sign onto his campaign. Grant Hagstrom, a political science major who will be a senior at the University of Minnesota this fall, is serving as Fine’s senior aide. Neither has been involved in a political campaign before, but Fine encouraged each of them to give it a try. Sliwinski said she’s getting a wealth of hands-on experience.

“I’m working as a liaison between the candidate and the public, working on fundraisers and setting up meetings with important people across the state. That’s why it’s so great,” Sliwinski said. “You wear a lot of hats, and I think that’s the best way to learn. It’s definitely not a boring summer job.”

But it definitely isn’t an easy job, either. Organizers on the Ostrow campaign report to the office by 11 a.m. Monday through Thursday and usually don’t finish their work until after 9 p.m. They also work five-hour days on Fridays and Saturdays and also occasionally attend parades or other events on Sundays.

“The most enjoyable and at the same time the most taxing part is talking to people on the campaign trail,” said 21-year-old Ostrow campaign field staffer Drew Swenhaugen, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in political science.

Jess McIntosh, the 24-year-old spokesperson for the Minnesota DFL (which has only one field organizer over the age of 30), said young adults are the people who gravitate toward working as field staff on many campaigns. Other staff positions attract an older demographic, she said. But most of the people who are out making contact with constituents and touting their candidates’ campaign message are young adults. And many young campaign workers admit that it’s probably because they’re the only demographic willing to work long, physically demanding hours for low pay.

“You’re talking about a 15-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, on-your-feet, in-the-sun job,” McIntosh said. “This is the kind of job you need to have the energy of a teenager to do.”

And this generation of young adults – known as Generation Y or DotNets – have plenty of the drive and dedication needed to make it on the campaign trail, said 23-year-old Ostrow field director Joelle Gotwals. She said today’s generation has seen its peers sent to war in Iraq, are beginning to experience the pain of high health-care costs, and have strong opinions on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. And, she said, they came of age right around the 2000 presidential election, a factor that many young campaign workers describe as a pivotal moment that made them pay attention to and get involved in politics. Gotwals said she turned 18 just a month before that election.

“It was quite a year to have your vote count,” Gotwals said. “It really drove home the point that every vote counts.”

While the hours are long and the work demanding, the potential payoff is big. Many young campaign staffers can land jobs on Capitol Hill or in the Minnesota Legislature if their candidate for office wins.

“If we win this, I’m going to work on the Hill,” said 22-year-old Ostrow campaign field team crew leader John Noonan. “A job on the Hill is definitely some sort of motivating factor.”

But James Haggar, the 24-year-old campaign manager for Southwest resident Mark Ritchie’s bid for secretary of state, said the bigger reward is working toward something that could make a difference on a state or national level. Haggar left college in 2002 to work on the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone’s campaign. He was inspired by his work with Wellstone, and went on to work on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and an effort to encourage people to register to vote.

“I learned a lot in school, but I wasn’t inspired by it,” Haggar said. “Working for Mark, I feel like every day I’m making Minnesota better.”

Noonan said while there is a strong group of young adults actively working on campaigns and becoming activists for a variety of causes, there are still many young people who aren’t involved and don’t vote. But Anderson contends that young people, like everyone else, vote when they find a candidate that speaks to issues they care about. If more people want to get the DotNet generation to the polls, Anderson said they have to develop a deep relationship with young people that focuses on the issues they care about. It has to go further than “get out the vote” campaigns once every four years, she said.

“I think one of the questions we should be asking ourselves – particularly as people who are older – is how are we working in our organizations and on our campaigns to make it not only comfortable, but welcoming for young people to get involved,” Anderson said.

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4373.