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Chicago mayoral candidate Amara Enyia, 35, makes her pitch to prospective voters.

A Fed Up Generation

Millennials Are Entering Politics to Be the Change They Want to See

Chicago mayoral candidate Amara Enyia, 35, makes her pitch to prospective voters.

February 2019


Growing up on the south side of Chicago, 29-year-old Nicole Johnson always knew she wanted to pursue a career in public office. Whether it was addressing quality education, unemployment benefits, access to healthy foods, or public safety, issues that ?affect our daily lives were something I wanted to play a role in,? she explains.

Johnson witnessed what she calls the ?inequities? and ?disinvestments? that many have faced many in the country’s third largest city, specifically in the Chicago community known as Englewood. To counter these problems that have concerned and disturbed her, she obtained a Master?s Degree in Education Policy, began volunteering, then teaching, and ultimately entered politics as an intern under Democratic U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.

And now, Johnson is upping her personal public service game by running for Chicago?s 20th Ward Alderman seat?a neighborhood that includes Englewood. (The incumbent, Willie Cochran, is facing corruption charges and has dropped out of the race.) One of several candidates vying for the seat, Johnson says she didn’t like what she was seeing in the 20th Ward, a community burdened by few grocery stores, high unemployment and crime rates, under-resourced schools, and a lack of affordable housing.Johnson feels she can be the change she wants to see in the ward. ?I really want to play a role in my community and bring to it what it deserves,? she explains.

But Johnson isn’t alone among her peers. There are more than a dozen Millennials (people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) running in Chicago-area elections in 2019, mainly in the aldermanic race. According to a February 2018 Brookings Institute report, ?The Millennial generation is America?s largest generation, making up nearly 25 percent of the total U.S. population?Millennials are also America?s most diverse adult generation: 44 percent of them are minorities.?


Nicole Johnson goes door-to-door collecting signatures to make the?ballot for Chicago’s 20th Ward Alderman.?


?2016 got many people fired up,? says Oren Jacobson, the former national chapter development director of the New Leaders Council. NLC is a leadership training center, helping progressive millennials learn the skills they need to run for office, manage campaigns, and create start-ups. Following the 2016 election, ?we saw many movements arise that were led by young people,? he explains.

In fact, Jacobson is one of many who point out that the 2018 elections ushered a wave of Millennials Into the public sector with a vengeance. They’re excited to make an impact, rally against polarizing politicians, and challenge the status quo, he says. Jacobson has volunteered for several campaigns, including that of Cook County Illinois State?s Attorney Kim Foxx.

?You would have never seen as many (young) people running, and this much turn-over, if it wasn’t for Donald Trump,? says Kenneth Sawyer. Sawyer is considered Generation X (people born between the early 1960s and 1980s), and has spent 20 years working in politics, including a stint as the Assistant City Treasurer for the City of Chicago. He considers Trump to be ?extreme and polarizing.?

And He’s not alone.?A March 2018 report from Pew Research Center?study found that ?just 27 percent of Millennials approve of Trump?s job performance, while 65% disapprove.? The study goes on to reveal that ?even taking the greater diversity of younger generations into account, younger generations?particularly Millennials?express more liberal views on many issues and have stronger Democratic leanings than do older cohorts.?



Oren Jacobson ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?Kenneth Sawyer


These leanings may have developed as a result of the Great Recession, when many Millennials were looking for their first jobs or were graduating from college, encumbered by student loan debt, and finding few or limited employment opportunities.

?Many were shocked by the economic change,? says Rosalind Moore, the Director of Programs at Teamwork Englewood in Chicago. Teamwork Englewood is a nonprofit community-based organization that provides workforce development, re-entry services and youth programs; the group also works with residents of Englewood to improve the quality of the community. ?The return on their investment into higher education was not there for Millennials,? Moore adds.

In contrast, Jacobson says that the children of the post-World War II era, Baby Boomers (people born between the mid 1940s and early 1960s), reaped great benefits from the G.I. Bill and the Civil Rights Era; they could receive low-cost education and low-interest home loans. In 2019, Millennials aren’t reaping those same benefits.

?Many Millennials were lost after moving from their parents? homes and paying for pricey tuitions only to find out they couldn’t land those high paying jobs that, decades earlier, provided years of security for their parents after they had graduated from college,? Moore explains.

Moore, herself a younger Boomer who has served as an aldermanic assistant for past elected officials, is also a mother to two Millennials. She too has noticed the recent increase in young adults feeling like they can take on the role of an elected official. ?They point the finger at Baby Boomers for a lack of jobs, high tuition costs, high taxes, a poor job market, and the debt they’re now incurring,? she says.


Rosalind Moore (in purple at right)?talks with residents at a mayoral forum at the University of Illinois-Chicago.?


But rather than just complain, some Millennials are now marking their territory, entering political races, and declaring they?ll do a better job serving the public than their predecesors. Some of this newfound excitement about government is due to Millennials? ages. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019 the Millennial generation consists, more or less, of young people between 23 and 38; they were between 12 and 27 during the 2008 election, when the youth vote played an important role in the historic election of Barack Obama, the first black president.

The Pew study also reveals that a majority of Millennials (57 percent) say that government doesn’t do enough for younger people; 53 percent of Generation Xers, 48 percent of Boomers, and just 37 percent of the Silent Generation (people born between the late 1920s and mid 1940s) say the same.

Sawyer applauds the gumption and drive of Millennials entering politics. ?If you’re dissatisfied with the status quo you should run,? he says. ?You don’t get power by waiting your turn, you take it by running for office.? At the same time, he urges that aiming for a position like mayor or governor, in which the office holder is controlling millions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs, is unrealistic for a first-timer, espcially in major cities like Chicago and New York.

In Chicago, there are quite a few current politicians who have spent close to a lifetime in public office, including 14thWard Alderman Ed Burke who, although now under federal investigation for extortion, is still campaigning to maintain his aldermanic seat. Burke has served on the city council since 1969?50 years, to be exact. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan has been in office 35 years, the longest state house speaker in U.S. history, according to illinoispolicy.org.

?They become drunk on the power but are now feeling threatened by the younger generation,? says Moore. She is a devout advocate of the need for term limits. ?Public office is not about staying in office forever,? she adds. She believes lawmakers ought to focus on making an impact, and then on grooming future leaders to transition into roles of power.

?However, many politicians get too comfortable and want to hold on to the security of the job, and the clout and celebrity that come with it,? Moore explains.

29-year-old Maggie O?Keefe is running for Chicago?s 40th Ward Alderman seat against an incumbent, Patrick O?Connor, who has held the office since 1983?before she was even born. She sees a major disconnect from her own life, and the politics of O?Connor and other veteran Chicago leaders. ?There is no attachment there, and their politics do not make up my beliefs,? she explains.


Maggie O’Keefe, running to become the alderman of Chicago’s 40th Ward, speaks to prospective voters at a campaign event.?


Sawyer notes that, in Chicago, Millennials haven?t been as successful in unseating incumbents?at least not yet. On a national level ?we have seen history made,? and for the same reasons that O?Keefe cites. Many Millennials are tired of the status quo, and of those in office who do not, or no longer, represent the demographics of those they serve.

Examples abound: 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York City?s Bronx borough made history in 2018 when she was elected to Congress, and became the youngest women ever to win a seat. 37-year-old Ilhan Omar made history as well after becoming the first Somalian American Muslim woman from Minnesota elected to the House of Representatives. In her Democratic primary, Omar beat Phyllis Kahn, who was tied for the title of longest-serving legislator in Minnesota history. And then there’s 32-year-old Lauren Underwood, the new U.S. congresswoman serving Illinois 14thDistrict. She made history in 2018 to become the youngest black woman ever elected to the House of Representatives.

In many cases, especially in larger cities, younger voters are showing up to the polls in far bigger numbers than ever before, and the majority are voting for Democratic candidates. In the Illinois 2018 Midterm election, for example, younger voters had the most significant number of votes cast?more than162,000?according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

According to a November 2018 report by The Center For Information & Research On Civic Learning and Engagement, ?Young people?s dramatic rise in voter turnout, combined with an overwhelming preference for Democratic candidates, made youth a powerful voting bloc in the 2018 midterms.? According to exit polls, 67 percent of youth voted for a House Democratic candidate and just 32 percent for a House Republican candidate, a historic 35-point vote choice gap ?that almost certainly helped the Democratic Party take control of the House of Representatives.?


Amara Enyia is making her second run for mayor of Chicago. She previously ran in 2015.


35-year-old Amara Enyia is taking a cue from these young women who’ve risen to power and is making her second run for mayor of Chicago. She tried once before, in 2015, eventually dropping out of the race after facing challenges from opponents regarding voter signatures.(In Chicago, candidates can challenge the authenticity of their opponents? signatures, 12.500 of which are needed to secure a place on the ballot in the first place. These petitions to the board of elections can cost candidates thousands of dollars in court fees and can be time consuming to fight or prove. This is a well-known legal tactic used by Chicago politicians to knock their opponents off the ballot.) Rahm Emmanuel, who is not seeking re-election in 2019, won in 2015 with 55.7 percent of the votes after he was force into a run-off with Chuy Garcia.

?It’s about the type of experience you have, and age is not a disqualifier or qualifier,? Enyia says of her latest effort to become mayor.

A native of the city?s west side, Enyia says sHe’s been engaged in grassroots organizing for as long as she can remember. Her entire career has involved working in politics, whether it be campaign consulting or international lobbying. She holds a law degree and a Ph.D. in educational policy studies. ?Public Office is another way of getting things done,? she says. ?The seats belong to the people.?

During this bid to become mayor, Enyia has been able to garner the support of some big-name musical Chicago luminaries: Kanye West and Chance The Rapper. Chance donated $400 thousand to her campaign and West contribued more than $70 thousand to clear the political debt Enyia racked up from her previous run at mayor.

?Kanye and Chance have shown they care about the city?s future,? Enyia says. ?It’s good to know they care enough to get involved in this election through supporting my campaign. But It’s also good to know that they already have a track record of involvement in the community, whether It’s in education, mental health or youth development.?

Chance has been rallying the youth vote for Enyia by accompanying her at events and on the streets of Chicago, attracting crowds of people and enabling her to meet potential constituents she might not otherwise connect with. As a reuslt, Enyia has racked up 60 thousand signatures to secure her place on the ballot this time around.


Chance the Rapper works the phones for Chicago mayoral candidate Amara Enyia.


At the same time, Enyia is facing new obstacles. Reports in early February surfaced showing that, among other issues, Enyia has faced tax liens and underreported her income in the past. Enyia said the underreporting was an oversight, that payment plans were being made to pay off the taxes, and that her financial troubles came about due to her choice to? to work in public service.

During a press conference to address the situation, Enyia said that her personal financial troubles should not be the sole determiner of her competency. ?We’ve had many mayors in the past who’ve had stellar personal finances,? she stated, explaining that she was not able to afford ?high-priced accountants? to sort through the laws and loopholes of her tax filings.

, and yet the city is still in the brink of financial ruin,? she added, refering to the governance of current leaders.

?As for Johnson, she hopes her lifetime of civic involvement will resonate with voters in her aldermanic race. She says it all began in high school when she started volunteering at the PEACE (People Educated against Crime in Englewood) Community Center. PEACE provides after-school programming and summer jobs for youth, administers social service programs, and partners with the Chicago Police Department to assist with violence reduction.


Chicago 20th Ward Aldermanic Candidate Nicole Johnson


Johnson says she helped her fellow teens learn ?what they should have known, and they could not grasp. I walked away from that experience thankful for my education, but committed to ensuring that other kids had the same opportunities,? she explains. Johnson later went on to become a third grade teacher for Chicago Public Schools. Teaching, Johnson insists, is the foundation of public service.

Prior to her run for alderman, Johnson spent years of ?doing the work? in order to truly understand what it means to serve the public. She learned on Capitol Hill with Senator Durbin, and by working at the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institue. She says her experiences have given her unique insight into federal and national government policy initiatives.

And now, after spending nearly two years on the campaign trail listening to the needs of voters, attending candidate trainings, and knocking on doors, Johnson is hoping her hard work will result in a win on Election Day on February 26. ?Our campaign,? she says, ?runs on three basic, yet integral values: economic empowerment, exceptional schools, and safe communities.?


Rashanah Baldwin can be reached on Twitter @rashanahbaldwin


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