A pair of mid-20s political activists are frustrated with the lack of diversity among elected officials in the United States and on Monday will launch a new effort to try to do something about it.
Poy Winichakul and Luke Squire, the brains behind LaunchProgress Action Fund, a non-profit created last summer to encourage more young people to run for office, will roll out a political action committee (PAC) on Monday.
The new PAC, also called LaunchProgress, will publicly pledge to offer financial support and help with campaigning — from speech-writing tips to door-knocking help — on Monday to four candidates running for state office in Michigan, its founders told Fusion.
“It’s young people for young people,” Winichakul said. “It’s not true that young people are over politics, but we have to fight that perception. A lot of this is grassroots-focused and about bringing in young donors.”
The idea, she said, is to champion diverse candidates that actually reflect the demographics of young America.
LaunchProgress will endorse Democratic state representative candidates Jon Hoadley, Stephanie Chang, Kristy Pagan and Rebecca Thompson.
All are first-time candidates, 35 or under, two are women of color, and one is gay – all underrepresented demographics in elected office. Hoadley is a gay man running in a legislature that currently has no LGBT members. Women make up just one-fifth of Michigan’s legislature, where there are only three women of color. If Chang is elected, she would be the first Asian-American woman to serve in the state’s legislature.
While the current set of endorsed candidates are all Democrats, the PAC insists it is progressive but nonpartisan. The PAC will support candidates who acknowledge and fight climate change, who support equal rights for people regardless of sexual orientation or gender, and who support election reforms that make voting accessible, regardless of party.
“Our broad stance,” Winichakul said, “is that everyone deserves equal opportunity to advance.”
A LaunchProgress event in Boston. (Courtesy of LaunchProgress Action Fund)
Both Winichakul and her co-founder and friend Luke Squire attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Winichakul has worked with Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and with Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D-Wisc.) Progressives United PAC. Squire previously interned in the Obama White House and worked for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).
The two were sitting around Squire’s dining room table in Washington, D.C., the night of Obama’s second inauguration talking about what his reelection meant for the future of politics and, particularly, the political future of young people, Winichakul said.
“We said, ‘What if we start this… but then we actually did it,’” she recalled of launching the non-profit arm.
Winichakul said LaunchProgress is focusing on state-level politics because there is more room to spark change. The same goes for timing. The group is launching during a midterm election when turnout is lower and there is greater potential for impact.
Beyond Michigan, the PAC will endorse candidates in Ohio next month and North Carolina in June, and then scale out from there after its pilot year. The plan, Winichakul said, is to double the number of candidates the PAC endorses and add a state or two each year. They will endorse candidates running for office at the state level and below, down to town council.
The PAC’s website says the initial three states are “battleground states with rapidly changing demographics and a thirst for new progressive leadership.”
Winichakul elaborated that they are also states where the founders have political connections and networks.
The Michigan primary is not until August and it remains unclear which, if any, of the four candidates the PAC has chosen to endorse will succeed. But this is a pilot year for a new venture, Winichakul said, and a chance to encourage more diverse candidates to run and to support those who do.
“The demographics of the country are changing rapidly,” she said. “We need more people that look like the rest of America to represent us.”
Winichakul bristles at the idea that young people don’t have enough experience to hold office or can’t relate to older generations. Young Americans are intimately familiar with the recession, unemployment and student loans, she said. They’ve grown up with the war in Iraq and a post-9/11 world. They love and care about grandparents and parents who are struggling with social security and medical expenses, and they have friends who face life-altering illnesses like cancer the same way older adults do.
Chang, one of the candidates the PAC will endorse, lives in Detroit and has worked as a community organizer with various civil rights groups since graduating from the University of Michigan in 2005. She told Fusion, “I think a lot of the reason so many of us [young progressives] are running is that we’re really fed up with the way things are going in Lansing over the past couple of years, and we’re really looking forward to bringing a change to some of the ways they’ve been handling things.”
The PAC, which was just registered in Michigan and has no contributions on file yet, will be able to give up to $10,000 to each of the candidates.
The founders have until this point been focused on fundraising for the non-profit entity and have just started seeking major donors for the PAC.
Winichakul wrote in an email that, “Our PAC fundraising strategy does include major donors and we have plans for those to come in soon, but right now the PAC is working on building our mid-level donor base and reaching out to grassroots donors to help broaden our network and strengthen our brand.”
One of the group’s mid-level donors, a mid-30s lawyer with a top firm in New York City who requested to remain anonymous, said she contributed because she sees LaunchProgress as a way to show diverse young people that they can absolutely have a voice in the political process.
“I believe very strongly in welcoming all of these people into the political arena,” she said.
The donor added that she’s very conscious of the negative effect of big money in the political system, and likes the group’s emphasis on involvement and engagement, from helping candidates with outreach to setting up networking events, rather than just pumping dollars into a political machine.
The donor said she will see the PAC as a success if it draws new faces into the political arena and if it generates new volunteers, regardless of whether the candidates win their primaries or elections.
Winichakul is also more interested in talking about the non-monetary ways LaunchProgress can help candidates, from speech-writing tips and networking events to press-release drafting and strategizing.
LaunchProgress will do that by relying on a candidate advisory board that so far consists of about 30 people from California, Texas, New York, Washington, D.C., and around the country, Winichakul said.
Rebecca Thompson, one of the endorsed candidates and someone who has worked to recruit more minority political leaders herself, said that as a young woman of color, when she looked at the mostly older, white male lawmakers in Lansing, “I didn’t really see myself in the picture.”
Thompson, who has served as a mentor to both Winichakul and Squire in various leadership training roles, said that the early LaunchProgress endorsement will help push her campaign forward and demonstrate that young people are interested in engaging in the political process.
“There are some amazing young people stepping up all across the country,” she said, “and I think we have to redefine what leadership looks like.”
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