Olson, right, shakes hands with Gov. Jay Inslee. Photo courtesy of Washington State Legislative Support Services

This 29-Year-Old Is On a Mission to Get More Millennials Into Washington Politics

Brayden Olson argues his generation is suffering in today’s economy, and needs a seat at the policy table to fix it.

Last week, the King County Metropolitan Council set about filling the state Senate seat vacated by Cyrus Habib, who got elected lieutenant governor in November.

The council unanimously selected House Rep. Patty Kuderer, which in turn required the council to fill the Kuderer’s House seat. There was little doubt who the council would pick. The way these appointments work is that the party from which the departing lawmaker belongs selects three nominees for the council to consider. Through the votes of precinct committee officers in the district, the party ranks their preference of nominees, and the council almost always goes along with the party’s top pick. In the case of Kuderer’s house seat, the Democrats had recommended Bellevue City Councilmember Vandana Slatter, and the proceedings had an air of fait accompli when the council voted unanimously to appoint her to the seat.

As such, fellow candidate Brayden Olson’s remarks imploring the council to do more to account for millennial in their decisions lent a rare note of urgency to the meeting. In precinct voting, Olson got far fewer votes than Slatter, but more, he suggested, than one might expect.

“Vandana is one of the strongest, most qualified, phenomenal candidates we have on the Eastside. She also has support from major figures of our party,” said the 29-year-old business owner. “My goal today is to help us understand why, with all these being the case, more than 35 percent of [committee officers] voted for a candidate”—himself—“who was younger, had less political involvement, and was less familiar with the current political establishment.”

Olson had a theory: Millennials want more politicians who look, talk, and think like them.

This is, granted, a somewhat self-serving theory for Olson to put forth. As a millennial active in the Democratic Party himself, he has something to gain from the party putting more effort into promoting people like him for office. That said, during the meeting and a followup interview, he made a compelling case that millennials are a political force that the parties ignore at their own peril, and that to win the generation’s vote, parties must grapple directly with issues unique to that generation— high unemployment and heavy debt, to name just two.

“It’s not an agism thing. There are boomers out there, and gen-xers, who are fighting just as hard on these issues as myself,” he tells Seattle Weekly. “But you’ve basically got this new hierarchy where people are staying politically active and healthy till a very late age, so a transition isn’t happening, and you have this generation coming up that desperately needs a seat at the table.”

Among statistics Olson cites as significant to his case are employment figures for male Americans age 18-33, which fall about 10 percent lower than that age group in previous generations. Women in that age cohort also have lower employment levels that their parents did (though, for obvious reasons, are experiencing higher employment than women did prior to the 1960s.)

“We’ve got what in any context is a crisis level of unemployment,” Olson says.

This is a problem for politicians, Olson argues, not only because it speaks to fundamental issues with the economy, but also because it leads to disenchantment at the voting booth. And it’s especially pressing for Democrats, since they typically get more of the youth vote than Republicans.

“If you look at the national election, about five percent of the millennials who voted for Democrats in the last presidential election didn’t show up this election. There was another 10 percent who didn’t vote for a Democrat or a Republican,” he says. “The Democratic Party has to figure it out or we really don’t have a way out.”

Many others agree that Olson is on to something.

Sandeep Kaushik, a longtime political advisor in Seattle, says he and his partners have noticed more striking generational divide with millennials that previous generations.

“I don’t have a good answer for why that is,” he says, “other than you do have this growing cohort of millennial voters who seem to have had a different life experience growing up. … With globalization and technological change, we’re seeing much sharper differences between winners and losers. I think those sorts of concerns are much stronger with millennials. Globalism is creating huge changes, and they’re rapid changes.”

Of course, no one would argue that millennials are the only constituency under-represented in politics. During the appointment hearing, Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles noted that Washington has a strong history of female policymakers in Washington, but “has slipped from that a little bit.” Slatter, the candidate who was unanimously chosen over Olson to join the House, would help restore some gender balance to the legislature.

Still, Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who also sang Slatter’s praises, agreed that the political system must make room for millennials. Balducci tells Seattle Weekly that the candidacy of Bernie Sanders drove home to her that young voters were hungry to hear politicians talk about their economic reality.

“Economically, watching what happened with Bernie Sanders, and why he was so attractive to young people—he was speaking to what’s becoming so obvious,” Balducci says. Lower incomes, higher debt, and worse job prospects, “It all adds up to something that my generation and older generations of leaders need to be thinking about.”

Democratic Party Chairman Jaxon Ravens says that millennials are already getting involved in politics on a number of levels, including in elected positions on both sides of the aisle. A brief scan of the Washington legislative roster suggests that to be true (Puyallup Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, for instance, was the youngest woman elected to the state House since 1936). Ravens says there’s always progress to be made, and noted that just that morning the Associated Press had published an article noting the millennials are making 20 percent less income than their parents did at the same age, despite being better educated.

“They are struggling on a different set of issues…They are really struggling,” he says. Addressing the concerns of millennials “is a matter of listening to and supporting the interests of this generations, but it’s also about actively giving them a seat at the decision making process going forward.”

Olson couldn’t agree more. Olson says he’s advocating for is the Democratic Party to “step in as mentors.”

“But not mentors like, ‘In 10 years we want to run you.’ Step up and get them ready for the next election. The Democratic Party is going to have to take a leap of faith on a couple candidates.”

dperson@seattleweekly.com

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