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Ilya Sheyman Headshot

Skip the Line

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Last week, I lost an election.

You're probably looking at my headshot and thinking, "well, that's not surprising. That kid looks like he's 12 years old," (or, as HuffPost reporters Ryan Grim and Amanda Terkel put it, "he looks like he just got bar mitzvahed.")

You're almost right. I'm 25.

So why are members of the progressive chattering class so shocked that we didn't pull this one off?

In a newly redrawn Democratic district, we ran one hell of a campaign. It was based on a kernel of an idea, that if you stood up, with backbone and conviction, for progressive values, you could win, and get a chance to make the changes that need to be made in Washington.

That idea took off like wildfire in Illinois' 10th Congressional District -- which has been controlled by Republicans for nearly 32 years. We ignited a grassroots, people-powered campaign the likes of which Chicago's northern suburbs haven't seen before.

We mobilized more than 650 volunteers and nearly 20,000 individual donors. We won the 10th District Democratic Party's straw poll with 73 percent of the vote.

"I have never seen the on-the-ground emotional groundswell before," one unaligned Democratic activist told The Hill newspaper about our grassroots support. "I can't put it in words. I've never seen anything like it. The support is deep and broad."

We were endorsed by former DNC Chair Gov. Howard Dean, former Sen. Russ Feingold, three sitting state representatives, the Sierra Club, major national progressive players like MoveOn, PCCC and Democracy for America, labor leaders from AFSCME to the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Steelworkers, and so many others.

We out-fundraised all of our primary opponents with $810,000, smashing the conventional wisdom that progressive candidates are always broke.

We believed that voters wanted someone like me, who had a proven track record of fighting for progressive values.

As the national mobilization director at MoveOn.org, I'd rallied five million Americans for real health care reform with a public option. As an organizer, I'd helped build a powerful coalition of parents, teachers, business leaders and community groups fighting to improve the quality and funding of our public schools.

And yes, I'm 25. Perplexing all subscribers to conventional wisdom, that turned out to be one of our biggest assets.

In conversations with voters, and in polling, we found that people loved the idea of the next generation of leadership stepping up and taking responsibility. With Congress at an approval rating of 9 percent, voters liked the idea of a candidate who looked nothing like the usual suspects in Washington.

So why didn't it work out? And what does it mean that it didn't?

Naysayers claim this loss is a sign that I should have "waited my turn," that I'm too young, and that progressives can't win in a district like IL10, that people-powered campaigns can never beat the status quo.

They're wrong. Here's my take on what happened:

1) Late Money and Who Is the Progressive

We ran on the same platform from day one: Put people back to work through federal jobs legislation, restore fairness to our tax system, and invest in America.

Our main opponent entered the race as a self-described "pro-business" moderate. Eventually, we pushed the whole field of candidates to come out for an agenda that looked a lot like ours -- ending the Bush tax cuts, eliminating the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, and letting Medicare negotiate bulk rates on prescription drugs.

Our opponent then defined himself first as the progressive in the race, through a direct mail program starting two months before Election Day. Meanwhile, we held off on any paid communication with voters for an extra four weeks -- not knowing about the windfall of contributions that would come in at the end, which would have enabled us to have run as aggressive a mail program as he had.

So the takeaway isn't that a progressive can't win -- our opponent won because he ran as a progressive, thanks, in part, to the power of our campaign's message.

2) Astonishingly Low Voter Turnout

For the second election in a row, voter turnout hit a record-breaking low, not only in the 10th District, but all over the Chicagoland area, throwing off some of our targeting plans and strategy.

Illinois has a problem when it comes to voter disenfranchisement and civic engagement. A big reminder from this race is that if progressives are going to win, we need to focus on turning that trend around and getting voters to feel a stake in the political process again.

3) Last Minute Smear Campaigns Work

In the 10th District, Jewish voters are a key bloc. I should know -- I'm a product of that Jewish community, where my family and I have lived since arriving in this country as Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

Despite my personal history and my pro-Israel positions, something happened in the final week of our race.

Those who opposed my candidacy sought to cast a shadow of doubt over my commitment to a Jewish democratic homeland in the State of Israel, through a dishonest whisper campaign, the extent of which I may never fully know.

This highly targeted effort -- in robocalls, emails, and synagogues -- combined with the very low voter turnout in the election, undoubtedly had a disproportionate effect on the outcome, and came too late for us to respond meaningfully. It also proves the importance of early voter-to-voter organizing. We had the truth on our side -- but we didn't organize as effectively in that community -- my community -- to deliver the facts and counteract the dishonest attacks.

So, we came up short this time. But that shouldn't be surprising -- after all, most campaigns do.

What is surprising is what we were able to achieve, and that our generation is ready to provide real, progressive leadership right now.

As Gov. Howard Dean said at our get-out-the-vote rally with 250 volunteers, just a week before the election:

"Ilya's generation has already changed America in ways that no one could imagine... The new generation is going to have to run this world. It is time now to make that transition."

The moral here is simple. If you've got an idea or a deeply held conviction, if you're going to run on progressive values, and work hard every day to build something real -- skip the line. Don't wait. Even if they say you're too young, or that it's not your turn.

The challenges this country faces are far too great to let something as arbitrary as age, or the conventional wisdom, stand in the way of you helping steer this country in a new direction.

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