Editor’s note: This story is part of a series on the 2022 election produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include Startland News, Missouri Business Alert, Kansas City PBS/Flatland, KCUR, The Kansas City Beacon and American Public Square.
Ray Reed sat around a bonfire in Kirkwood, Missouri, with hometown and college friends after the 2020 presidential election, discussing the most pressing political issues facing government officials — and their own policy priorities, he recalled.
“We care about student loan forgiveness. We care about universal health care. We care about reproductive rights. We care about union rights. We care about climate change. What stood between us and working on those issues was this federal office — and so we said, ‘Let’s run for Congress,’” said Reed, who is now a Democratic candidate for Missouri’s 2nd U.S. Congressional District.
At 25, Reed is the minimum age to serve in the U.S. House. He is also part of a new wave of candidates who fall into Generation Z, defined by the Pew Research Center as anyone born between 1997 and 2012.
These new-to-the-scene advocates are working to break political molds they see unfit for serving their generation, as well as trying to get their peers to the polls despite young people historically having the lowest voter turnout.
Reed, who has served in the offices of former Gov. Jay Nixon, D-Missouri, and former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, views his young age as a strength, he said, explaining that he sees Gen Z as the moral compass of America.
“I really believe that when we all participate, not even the sky is our limit,” Reed said. “I think we are the most compassionate generation, the most inclusive generation, the most fired up generation. … We’re not waiting for someone to fix the problems; we’re ready to fix them right now.”
But Reed’s assessment of how to address those concerns isn’t universal — even among Gen Zers interested in politics. In fact, the divide within the generation on political topics can be just as pronounced as with older voters.
Jasper Logan, 23, is running as a Republican for a Missouri House seat representing northwest Missouri. Logan, who is from Burlington Junction, wants to defend the Second Amendment, uphold anti-abortion laws and reduce the tax and regulatory burden on Missouri citizens, according to his website.
Startland News and Missouri Business Alert contacted Logan for comment, but he did not reply in time for publication.
“I hope I can be a voice not only for my district,” Logan said in a press release announcing his candidacy, “but for the next generation of Missouri Republicans as well. … We need to get them engaged by showing them that they are represented within our party and within our government, and that they, too, can make a difference.”
Such urgency to act and get politically involved is shared by Justice Horn, a 24-year-old Blue Springs native running for Jackson County Legislature.
Horn, a Democrat, had his dreams set on being an Olympic wrestler while competing in college, he said. But after the death of a close friend, Horn realized he wanted to use his time for community work.
“Folks need to understand why young people stand up,” Horn said. “Situations are forced on us to stand up. We can’t go to school anymore without the fear of being shot. I go to the movie theaters and always look for an exit plan now.”
Generational challenges, strategies
Reed and Horn both touched on barriers for young people entering politics, from pushback over lack of experience to difficulty accessing donors and funds. It is critical to build a supportive network, Reed said.
“You can’t criticize [Gen Z] for not voting when they don’t have any young person [on the ballot] or anyone who really excites them.”
— Justice Horn, candidate for Jackson County Legislature
“I want to start off by saying I respect and admire my primary opponent, but they pretty much say that people should vote for them because they’re older,” Reed said. “They know how to play the political game better. … I don’t think people necessarily want someone who knows how to play the game better. They want somebody to stop the games being played.”
When asked for comment, representatives for Reed’s primary opponent, State Rep. Trish Gunby, D-Ballwin, said in an email that “the differences in this race have little to do with age” and dismissed the idea that Gunby is a “political insider.”
Horn secured the endorsement of former Kansas City Mayor Sly James to build a foundation of trust among older generations, he said. But, Horn is intentionally campaigning to meet younger voters where they are, whether that’s at the farmers market, First Fridays or right at the front door of their apartment.
“Why young people and their issues don’t get brought along is because one — no one does the work to actually meet them where they’re at,” Horn said. “… They constantly get left behind because no one wants to do the work of actually going to the apartments, as well as listening to them. On the same hand, you can’t criticize them for not voting when they don’t have any young person [on the ballot] or anyone who really excites them.”
Even before Reed had filed to run for office, he spoke about voter registration to high schools and colleges, he said — noting he is continuing to chat with Gen Z and younger generations at schools and on social media.
“A lot of them DM me on Twitter and Instagram, like, ‘Hey, can you come back and talk to this group of friends because we want to get involved with your campaign,’” Reed said. “So, of course, we take them up on that.”
A diverse, well-educated cohort
Generation Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, according to Pew. The majority of Gen Zers are enrolled in college or have just graduated, putting Gen Z on track to be the most educated generation.
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Carter Fortman, a Gen Z voter and chairman of the Missouri Federation of College Republicans, said that many older politicians do not meet the needs of college-aged voters.
“We’re not very well off; we’re not very rich,” Fortman said. “But I think in the past you’d have a lot of politicians who have sort of come off as either wealthy themselves, or they only seem to care about the interests of wealthy people.”
Despite plenty of Gen Z voters and candidates desiring change, there is low voter turnout among young voters, according to David Kimball, a political science professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“One of the biggest differences is that younger adults participate in politics at a much lower rate than older people,” Kimball said. “So, Gen Z don’t participate in politics as much as older generations.”
About 51 percent of Gen Z Americans voted in the November 2020 election, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. That was the lowest turnout rate for any generation in the election.
Fortman said he believes there is less political engagement from his peers because they are not excited about current candidates. He notes that newer candidates lean more into divisive views, which can leave out centrist voters.
“I think there’s a lot of people who are now sort of feeling less represented because there’s not that many moderate candidates who are coming about — and that goes for the left and the right, too,” Fortman said.
As a Gen Zer, Fortman has an interest in being represented by a candidate his own age.
“I don’t think that someone who isn’t Gen Z can’t fulfill or can’t represent Gen Zers,” he said. “But I also think that it’s always good to have someone who is Gen Z in the arena, at least running.”
Gen Z and the economy
For Horn, who earned a degree in business administration from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a community’s human rights policies and local economy go hand-in-hand.
“Young people who are looking for places to move … usually look at how progressive a city is,” Horn said. “Do they have human rights policy? Do they have a nondiscrimination ordinance? And do they value diversity and inclusion? I think we’ve pushed the needle for us to do that. It’s made local business better because folks can say Kansas City is a welcoming place.”
One of Horn’s priorities if he’s elected into office would be to take an equitable approach to tax assessment, tax disbursement and regulations.
“If folks can’t even [afford] to live in their own home, and they’re a small business owner, it’s usually the small business that’s the first thing to go,” Horn said. “It does hurt our local economy, and it does hurt the life force of this community when we see small businesses go under.”
If Reed is elected to Congress, he would support raising taxes on the extremely wealthy, he said, noting that he was not referring to the doctors and lawyers in his district, but rather the bank CEOs and hedge fund managers. Those funds could then be used to forgive student debt, he continued.
“If I were to forgive $50,000 of [each American’s] student debt, you could use that money to put money on a house, buy a car, start a business, start a family — you could move on with your life,” Reed said. “I just don’t believe that government should be in the business of putting tens of thousands of dollars on the backs of 17 year olds. That’s just morally wrong.”
Lessons from another generation
Millennial politicians who also ran in their early- and mid-20s are familiar with facing more scrutiny than more established politicians.
Samantha Deaton, who is currently an alderwoman in Battlefield, said many people were surprised by her initial involvement in local politics when she was 25. Now 27, Deaton is running as a Democrat for the Missouri House in a district representing Greene County.
“Lots of times I’ve had people ask me if I’m old enough to vote,” Deaton said, laughing.
While some critics might question her qualifications, Deaton believes her age won’t hold her back from winning. After seeing sparse representation of young people in politics, Deaton is eager to represent her generation in the Missouri House.
“I think the requirements for being a representative are quite small on purpose; you basically have to be a law-abiding citizen over a certain age, and they put that age there for a reason,” she said. “The whole age population, around 25 to 35, even 25 to 40, is extremely underrepresented in politics even though there’s no further requirement for you to join in, and there’s nothing stopping young people from going for it.”
State Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel, said he was embraced by the public when he was the youngest candidate elected to the Missouri House in 2018, at age 24.
“Many folks made a point to mention that it’s good to see folks who are younger taking an active role, being engaged, putting themselves out there running for public office,” said Dirk Deaton, who is not related to Samantha Deaton.
As Reed noted, many young politicians get involved to address issues on which past politicians have not focused. For Samantha Deaton, her young family is a priority.
“One thing that’s really important to me is child care access and affordability and availability, which is something that a lot of candidates aren’t really thinking about just because a lot of them don’t have young kids at home,” Samantha Deaton said, with her 3-year-old in the background of the phone call.
Dirk Deaton used his past experience to help build stronger connections with other politicians, he said. He also pointed out that every young politician’s experience is unique, and others might face challenges he did not.
“While I was a first-time candidate, I’d never previously sought office,” Dirk Deaton said. “I had been involved at my local level, I had been president of my local county Republican club, and I had for years helped others who I believed in run for office.”
Samantha Deaton said that she faced many barriers in advancing to her current position, but she chose to lean on other female candidates as mentors to help learn more about the system.
“So much of running a successful campaign is based on who you know, and I’ve just had less time as an adult to know all the people,” she said. “… I think a lot of women candidates that have been mentoring me along the way, have a lot of awesome, solid advice to give. It’s always important to listen to perspectives of people that have more experiences than you in any type of field.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.