Courting the Cucumber-Infused Crowd: Democrats Woo Millennials
NEW YORK — On a Thursday evening earlier this month, a group of Democratic lawmakers entrusted with a big chunk of the party’s future mingled with well-dressed young professionals in an industrial-chic space in Manhattan, drinking glasses of wine and Mason jars of water infused with strawberries or cucumbers.
The New Yorkers were eager to interact with the four Democrats — three of whom are not much older than the millennial-aged crowd of entrepreneurs, investors and innovators in attendance.
One wanted to know what Congress could do to expand investment opportunities for new business ventures. Another talked about leveling the playing field between big and small businesses.
At one point, a member of the audience suggested lawmakers dismantle the U.S. Postal Service and retrain those employees in something related to the Internet, which Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., gently replied probably isn’t going to happen.
This was the kick-off event of the House Democratic Caucus’ latest attempt at youth outreach. Under the name “Future Forum,” young (and youngish) House Democrats took their message on the road last week, hitting New York City, Boston and San Francisco on a listening tour of tech incubators, startups and colleges.
There were Twitter hashtags. There were Instagrams. Later in the three-city tour, there was a program in which participants could text what they would buy if they didn’t have to repay student loans, and the responses — “car,” “vacation,” “house” — automatically turned into a “word cloud” on a giant projection screen.
Moulton, a 36-year-old freshman lawmaker, talked in New York about how running for Congress was like starting a small business — his days revolved around “selling an idea, building a team and raising money” (and raising money took up about 90 percent of his time).
Rep. Eric Swalwell, a 34-year-old, two-term California Democrat tasked with leading the Future Forum, said he had to quit his job as an Alameda County prosecutor when he decided to launch his congressional bid. He was unemployed for nine months, forcing him to dip into his savings and beg family and friends for campaign contributions.
Back in Washington, D.C., the Democrats said their conversations with the young people they met out on the road will inform how they draft legislation to ease student loan debt and increase college affordability and accessibility.
“We want to hear your ideas,” 39-year-old Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., told the Manhattan millennials. “Government can be a tool for you.”
The Future Forum met with college Democrats at Tufts University, but at least in New York, they didn’t dwell on their party affiliation. Instead, they left that to Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who, in his capacity as the 56-year-old chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, got to play a more partisan part (and make self-effacing jokes about his age).
“Millennial isn’t an age,” Swalwell reassured him. “It’s a mindset.”
Along with Swalwell, Moulton, Meng and Israel, other members who made appearances on the listening tour were Reps. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts; Ruben Gallego of Arizona; Derek Kilmer of Washington, and Pete Aguilar of California. In all, there are 14 members in Future Forum, most under the age of 40.
This isn’t the House Democrats’ young voter engagement effort of more than a decade ago, the one Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., convened in 2003.
At that time, Reps. Tim Ryan and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, along with then-colleague Kendrick Meek, banded together as the “30-Something Working Group,” using floor speeches and radio addresses to spread their message; blogs were the closest thing they had to the social media platforms of today.
“We used our House floor time in a little more irreverent and quirky kind of way,” Wasserman Schultz recalled. “We brought props onto the floor. We kicked ideas around, instead of timed, canned speeches. … We were edgy in the language that we used, just because that’s who we were. We tried to be real on the House floor.”
Tom Manatos, now the director of government affairs at the Internet Association, was the Pelosi staffer assigned to assist the 30-Something Working Group from 2003 through 2006.
The hours they clocked in front of the C-SPAN cameras gave them a kind of celebrity status, Manatos remembered.
“It was amazing,” he said. “They’d be traveling, way outside their districts, and people would stop them and say, ”30-something!’ It became a thing, almost, being stopped at airports. … They did something with WWE wrestlers, they were with Rock the Vote. It wasn’t just C-SPAN, but it was incredible how many people did watch it.”
When House Democrats retook control of the chamber in 2006, Pelosi invited Wasserman Schultz and Meek of Florida, and Ryan of Ohio, to join her onstage for her victory speech. Widely credited with helping turn out a record number of young Democratic voters that year, each was given a plum committee assignment members typically had to wait years to earn. Wasserman Schultz is now chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Last fall, Pelosi called for a reconstituted 30-Something Working Group for the 114th Congress and put Swalwell in charge. The timing — right after the devastating election returns — may or may not have been a factor.
Like their predecessors, the members who make up Future Forum are aiming to be relatable.
Comparing congressional campaigns to startups is one tactic. Emphasizing the “coolness” factor of politics and public service is another — and in that regard, Swalwell is the perfect face of the operation.
Buckled into his seat aboard his afternoon flight from D.C. to New York this month, Swalwell, with a thick stack of newspapers on his lap, might have been preparing to catch up on his reading. He changed his mind, however, upon learning the CQ Roll Call reporter across the aisle was in need of a social media refresher course.
Passing the newspapers two rows ahead for his spokeswoman to peruse instead, Swalwell tapped, thumbed and scanned his way through all the different iPhone applications he uses to communicate with constituents.
He has no plans to cede social media control to a middleman, he said, for fear he’d lose his grip on the latest technology. (Later, at the Manhattan event with the young entrepreneurs, he impressed the room by mentioning the website Crowdtilt, which almost nobody in the room had heard of.)
“Do you know Meerkat?” he asked. “What about Periscope? Okay, here’s Layout.”
During the short flight, Swalwell explained that when he came to Capitol Hill, he hadn’t planned to share his experience of living and working under a mountain of student loan debt. “I didn’t talk about myself during my first term,” he said. “There was a stigma about debt. I thought people would see me as a young member and think, ‘Oh, he’s not responsible.’”
He recalled how a local newspaper wrote that he was one of the poorest members of Congress because of accumulated debt (Roll Call’s own 2014 Wealth Of Congress list has him listed No. 420 of 538 members and delegates), but didn’t bother to mention that the debt was related to his college education. It reinforced his insecurity.
By the time Swalwell won his first re-election race last year, however, he had a new objective: To be a leader on issues important to other young people, and to do so by telling his own story — and getting others to as well.
“This was a new way to engage with people,” Swalwell said Wednesday in reflection of the Future Forum’s recent excursion. “Politics isn’t necessarily what they wake up and think about. But what happens in politics certainly affects what they wake up and think about.”
Correction 9:52 a.m.
A previous version of this story misstated which court Swalwell worked for before he became a member of Congress. He was a prosecutor for Alameda County.