Rep. Jamie Raskin’s answer to the rough political climate is a little summer schooling.
“It’s been a tough time in Washington for the last couple years, and these young people give me hope,” the Maryland Democrat said of his political fellowship for 16- to 22-year-olds, Democracy Summer.
The law professor-turned-congressman started the program a decade ago to tap the energy of young Democrats. This year, he feels an “uprising” coming.
“Those of us who are trying to defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and everything that America has accomplished in the last century … we need the young people to understand precisely what’s under attack and to rise up to defend it,” he said.
Fellows spend six weeks knocking on doors and talking of a big blue wave. They don’t get paid. Instead, they get a crash course in progressive political organizing.
Some get a stipend for expenses, funded by Raskin’s Democracy Summer Leadership PAC.
While Raskin may be a Marylander, he’s thinking bigger than his home state. The program now has offshoots in the key hubs of Charlottesville, Philadelphia and Des Moines. From there, high-schoolers and college students — around 160 this summer — get deployed to swing districts.
In 2017, the fellows went to Georgia to canvass for Jon Ossoff, who lost to Republican Karen Handel in a special election. They also worked on state legislatives races in Virginia.
“That was a little bit of a heartbreaker for them, but they participated in really revitalizing Democratic politics in that district in Georgia. I told them, ‘Look, it’s like the generals say: It’s not battles won that counts, it’s battles fought,” he recalled. “But in Virginia, we were part of this political revolution that took place in 2017.”
Those fellows went on to flex their new skills during the school year.
“The fellows from last summer … they became — totally of their own volition — the principal organizers of the mass student walkout after the Parkland massacre,” Raskin said. “They organized 10,000 people to come down to Capitol Hill and to the White House.”
Updated 12/7/18 at 10:18 a.m. | Raskin first got the idea for Democracy Summer when he was running for state Senate in Maryland in 2006. When he asked his children, nieces and nephews to come work on his campaign, they had a quibble.
“They were all saying the same thing: ‘We can’t work for our uncle’s campaign, because how can we put that on our resume? It doesn’t look like we got a real job,’” he said.
So the name took shape.
“I said, ‘You’re not working on my campaign, you’re part of Democracy Summer.’ And they said, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re going to build a school within the campaign and we’re going to teach you.’ At that point, I had to do it,” Raskin said.
He relaunched the program after he got to Congress last year, and it’s been his main contribution during this heated midterm season.
“When I was asked to do my role in paying my dues to the DCCC, I said I was very happy to make regular monthly contributions — and I am very happy — but for me, that’s necessary but it’s not sufficient,” he said. “I wanted to go beyond it and I decided to reopen Democracy Summer.”
Aside from learning from Raskin, the fellows hear from prominent Democrats like Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Elizabeth Warren and policy experts on climate change, criminal justice, the environment and gun control. They show up at protests and fundraisers. They work the phones and the internet.
“We’re equipping them with the skills of organizing. They know how to use social media and they have a very sophisticated understanding of politics,” he said. “We’re starting to see young people in a real uprising mode.”
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Correction 12/7/18 | An earlier version of this story misstated Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s title. She is the House minority leader.