Philly’s Political Elders Lament the Lack of Millennials Running for Office

But millennials say boomer pols are failing to hand over the reins of power.

Photo by Bradley Maule

Photo by Bradley Maule

Mayor Michael Nutter is in that glorious final phase of his tenure where he’s calling things exactly as he sees them. With seven weeks left in office and very little to lose, he’s taking on everyone from mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr to elections chief Anthony Clark to the School Reform Commission.

One of his most intriguing targets has been millennials. Over the last few months, he’s been shouting from the rooftops that too few young people are running for elected office in Philadelphia. “Where are younger people?” he asked at Philly Mag’s ThinkFest last week. “Are they even thinking about running for office?”

He’s even gotten mean about it: “I’m increasingly concerned that many young people are just finding other avenues. And, you know, having 9 million followers on Twitter is not your level of political engagement.”

Nutter isn’t the only person who’s anxious about the the next generation of political leaders. In fact, something is in the air — everyone seems to be talking about this lately. At civil rights activist Jerry Mondesire’s funeral last month, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady said, “There will never be and there has never been a J. Whyatt Mondesire that we know. And there aren’t many more on the horizon that I know of.” Rev. William Moore joined in: “We need more fighters like Jerry. … Honor his legacy by picking up where he left off.” This month, the spokeswoman for Mayor-elect Jim Kenney told us, “Jim agrees that there could definitely be more young political leaders in Philly. He imagines the same attitude that keeps young people from going to the polls is also disaffecting their interest in political life.”

Do Nutter and others have a point? Is there a shallow bench in Philly? Should residents be worried? Or is this just another case of a generation misunderstanding and complaining about the one behind it?

“The talent is out there. People want to lead,” says 27-year-old Dan Siegel. “But we have a party that believes in unity above all, and sometimes that means there’s very little room for young people to have a seat at the table.”

Siegel is a board member of the city’s New Leaders Council, a nonprofit that trains aspiring politicians and civic leaders. He says more young people would run for office in Philly if more elected officials mentored them and then willingly passed the baton. Right now, he says, many older folks are steadfastly holding onto power.

“There seems to be a lot of hesitation in the political system to make room for the next generation of leadership,” he says.

That sentiment comes up a bit in young, civically-engaged circles. “There are a lot of young people out here that are interested and want to get into politics,” says Nicole White, the 29-year-old co-founder of the Pattison Leader Ball, a black-tie event for up-and-coming leaders. “I think the biggest issue is that our current leadership is not handing over the reins of power so very easily.”

There are other obstacles, millennials say. Money is a big one, especially in state races where there are no campaign contribution limits. “People who have been around for longer have bigger networks that have deeper pockets,” says Siegel. “You really need to know people.”

State Rep. Joanna McClinton, a 33-year-old who was elected for the first time this year, agrees: “You might have the best idea, you might have the solution to the budget impasse, but if you’re not able to gather resources necessary to put your picture on a mailing or even create a buzz online, you’re locked out.”

Hasn’t money always been a hurdle for young people, though? Haven’t older people always traveled in larger, more affluent circles? Of course, millennials say. But since campaigns have become more and more expensive over the years, young people today face a much bigger hurdle than the generations before them did.

Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based political consultant, says young people are disadvantaged in a city where running for office is a full-time job. “If you are a young lawyer or a young business executive or a young nonprofit leader, you can’t run for elected office in Philadelphia,” he says. “If I were king of the world, I would expand the number of people on City Council and make it a part-time position. Then other people could participate.”

Siegel says another thing that’s hurting millennials is, well, other millennials. A measly 12 percent of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 34 cast a ballot in May’s primary election. “People in their late 20s and early 30s are really really good at yelling and screaming, but we’re really bad at showing up to the polls. And if you can’t mobilize your constituency, it’s really hard to get elected to office.”

At this point in the story, you might think no young Philadelphians whatsoever are politically active. While I don’t think that’s what Nutter or other officials meant, it’s important to shut down this idea completely. To wit:

  • Six thirty-somethings and one twenty-something are in the General Assembly’s Philadelphia delegation: State Reps. Kevin Boyle, Donna Bullock, Jason Dawkins, Jordan Harris, Joanna McClinton and Brian Sims and Martina White.
  • A number of people in their 20s and 30s ran for City Council at-large this year, including Sheila Armstrong, Jenne Ayers, Kristin Combs, Andrew Stober, Isaiah Thomas, Daniel Tinney and Terry Tracy. Melissa Murray Bailey, who is 36, ran for mayor. None of them were successful, however.
  • There are several civic groups in the region, such as Young Involved Philadelphia, Urban Philly Professional Network and the aforementioned local chapter of the New Leaders Council, geared toward young people.
  • Hordes of young aides are employed in city and state government. For Chrissakes, 33-year-old Jane Slusser is going to be Kenney’s chief-of-staff next year.
  • Jared Solomon and Marisa Piccarreto are running for state House seats in 2016. A ton of other young people are rumored to be thinking about running for the General Assembly or Congress, including Adam Beck, Abu Edwards, Dan Kessler, Darren Lipscomb, Fran Nelms, Isaiah Thomas, Ben Waxman and Omar Woodard.

All those young people and more are in the game despite huge obstacles. And yet Nutter says he is “worried about quote-unquote the bench.” As he nears the end of tenure, maybe he’s just regretting the fact that his coattails aren’t longer. “When looking for young leaders, we tend to look for people behind us, instead of realizing they’re already out there and, in some cases, ahead of us,” says Mustafa Rashed, president of government relations firm Bellevue Strategies (and a Citified columnist).

Or maybe Nutter is onto something. Thirty-one-year-old Omar Woodard, who worked as a policy director for state Sen. Tony Williams, is thinking about running for a seat in the General Assembly. He believes there are many civically-engaged up-and-comers in the city, but he thinks some of them are rising through the ranks in nonprofits and businesses instead of City Hall.

In fact, Woodard’s career is a great example of the winding road that many millennials take: In addition to serving as a policy director, he’s been a lobbyist, adjunct professor, associate director of business development, and principal at a venture capital firm.

In the end, he says, the fact that many young people have similarly diverse backgrounds may prove extremely helpful to the city … once they run for office and win. “They’ll have a very versatile, very broad skill set,” he says,” to address our very wicked problems that don’t have cookie-cutter solutions.”