Gillum was 23 when he was first elected to fill an unexpired term on the city commission in Tallahassee, Florida—the youngest person ever to serve as a city commissioner. He’s now on his second full term and has served a one-year term as mayor pro tem. He feels comfortable with his political stature today, but that wasn’t always the case. “Shortly after I was elected, I went to a national convention of elected officials,” Gillum recalled. “The only thing I had in common with those people was we were all elected officials.”
At the next conference he went to, Gillum noticed a few people who were around his age. “We all had similar challenges,” he said. “We weren’t being taken seriously. We weren’t getting the support we needed.” The young politicos exchanged cell phone numbers.
Young Elected Officials, a network of politicians age 35 and under, “grew organically” from that phone list, recalled Gillum, who is the group’s director. The network, which is under the auspices of People for the American Way, held its first convention in Washington, D.C., in 2006. Sixty-four people showed up. “Three years later, we have over 480 people from every state in the country,” Gillum said. The membership includes two 18-year-olds and Luke Ravenstahl of Pittsburgh, who is white, and at 28 years old is the youngest mayor of a major city.Like the rest of their generation, Gillum said, young politicians have to deal with how racism manifests today. “Our struggles today don’t resemble the ‘60s civil rights struggles, but we have our new civil rights struggles,” he said. This means exposing racism that often comes in coded commentary and in public policies that are presented as colorblind.
Electoral politics has given Gillum a new appreciation of civil rights history.“I like the comparison of Martin and Malcom where Martin was the nonviolent movement head who went about business in a fundamentally different way than did Malcolm X,” he said. As a young politician, Gillum has found that he can’t just get things done on the inside of government without the external pressure of people from the community.
Young politicos are quickly learning the value of having support for their campaigns across generational lines.Jeremiah Grace, a 27-year-old Black school board member in Elizabeth, New Jersey was the youngest person ever to win a school board seat in his city. He put together a coalition of youth and seniors to promote his campaign. After he won the seat, average attendance at school board meetings tripled. “I think the people felt like they were finally being listened to when it came to their children’s education,” he said.
Gillum believes the nation’s young leaders have a lot in common, including a few things that he believes the country can sorely use. “Some people call us courageous, some just call us naïve,” he said. “Basically, our advantage as elected officials is that we’re less entrenched than our older colleagues. We have fewer connections; we have less of a ‘pay-to-play’ mentality. So we’re operating more out of our idealism.”