THE BLOG

Young and Running for Office: A Story from East L.A.

06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As we embark on a new era of youthful engagement in politics, the 111th Congress is the oldest we've ever seen. There are a number of young candidates on the scene hoping to drop that average, and they're starting to earn notice and support. After the record turnout of young voters in the last election, politicians and the public have started to appreciate the role young people are playing in our political process. The next step is transforming this political capital into political power for young people, whether it is on healthcare or student loans, climate change or jobs.

One powerful young candidate is Emanuel Pleitez, a 26-year-old who's running in the May 19 special election to replace newly appointed Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in California's 32nd Congressional District, which covers East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley. Pleitez's bid will serve as a model for young candidates everywhere.

Like most young candidates, Pleitez doesn't have the advantage of being represented by powerful lobbyists, and he doesn't have deep pockets. Instead, he's running a campaign predicated on listening and engaging people at the grassroots level. He has over 60 full-time volunteer field organizers, many of whom worked on Barack Obama's campaign, on the ground talking with voters every day, and he's using online organizing principals to raise money and engage thousands of supporters in his effort. This level of spirit and commitment for a Congressional campaign is unprecedented in Southern California.

Pleitez is a former member of the Obama Transition Team for the Treasury Department who grew up in an impoverished single-parent household in Los Angeles, overcoming great odds to become a committed public servant. He has already worked with political leaders, ranging from Hillary Clinton to Antonio Villaraigosa, as well as in civic engagement for nonprofits. Pleitez is the kind of young person we need in politics, someone who could have a promising career in finance or on Wall Street but has turned that down for the opportunity to run for office and commit to public service. He embodies the millennial spirit of pragmatic idealism, determined to make the world a better place, while realizing that it takes practical steps to get there.

Pleitez is up against two well-worn California politicians, who are, according to the Los Angeles Times, running their campaigns on ethnic-focused strategies. Judy Chu, a Chinese American, is relying on voter turnout from the small but politically active percentage of the electorate that is Asian American, while Gil Cedillo is banking on turnout from the Latinos who make up half of the district's electorate. In a special election with low turnout practically a given, every vote will count.

Not surprisingly, Pleitez's youth has become an issue in the campaign. His opponents cry that he doesn't have enough experience -- the subtext reads that he hasn't waited his turn. In one example, Cedillo sent out an attack mailer calling Pleitez immature, lifting some of Pleitez's friends' Facebook photos. This is not the kind of politics people -- young or old -- want.

These charges have been leveled before against countless politicians who dared to take a different approach and ran when others told them it wasn't their time, but that reasoning isn't going to cut it anymore. It's time for those in power to understand that the experiences and viewpoints of young people are vital to public discourse -- especially since the decisions made in Washington disproportionately affect the young. Members of Congress need young candidates like Pleitez to remind them about the power of grassroots organizing and the meaning of new technologies.

Pleitez is defying the odds, which goes to show that we should never underestimate the power of a millennial with passion, a natural ability to lead, and the desire to serve. The size and scope of his campaign suggest the type of operation he will create if elected to office: a Congressional office that will listen to everyone and lead by example.