francis nelms

The biggest thing that keeps Philly millennials from winning public office

The 2015 election cycle just ended on Tuesday, but Fran Nelms is already looking ahead like he has been for the last several months, knocking on more than 1,100 doors throughout his district in Northeast Philadelphia.

The 25-year-old was raised in Somerton and worked for Congressman Brendan Boyle, who also represents the Northeast, after graduating from Temple. Now Nelms, a Democrat, says it’s his turn, and he’s exploring running against newly-minted Republican state House Rep. Martina White, whose win in the Northeast shocked the city and flipped the 170th district from blue to red. White herself is just 26 and the youngest elected woman in Harrisburg.

“Some people run for office just to make a name,” Nelms said. “I already had a career for myself. I gave up a lot to do this because I was passionate about it. I wouldn’t put myself in a situation without thinking I’m going to win.”

Nelms is one of a number of young people who have for months — maybe years — weighed running for elected office. But there are a number of challenges for your first time in the political ring. You’re not established. People your age routinely fail to show up at the polls. And most of all, with smaller professional networks than older candidates, it’s harder to raise cash.

Some have already tried, failed, and are planning on trying again.

Last year, Jared Solomon came within 128 votes of unseating Mark Cohen, the lower Northeast Philly state representative who has held the same seat in the House for 41 years. The 36-year-old is running again in 2016, and now has a network of supporters who saw how close he came to unseating Cohen last time around.

“Much of it just comes down to hard work,” he said. “If you are willing to raise the money and do the outreach to the community, you will get so far in really bringing people into your camp.”

And that’s the buzzword. Money. Of the young people considering running for office in the future that Billy Penn spoke with, each one had the same concern: It’s hard to raise money when you’re just getting started. By nature, the network of donors and interested parties you can tap into is smaller when you’re 30 than it is when you’re 50.

But each person also said the answer is having an “in” with established Philadelphians, whether they’re current politicians — like Nelms, who has the support of Boyle — or community leaders.

Ben Waxman, a close aide to state Sen. Vincent Hughes, is rumored to be considering running for the Center City state House seat that currently belongs to Rep. Brian Sims, a well-liked Democrat who is making the jump to run for Congress. Waxman, 30, won’t confirm if he’s running for the seat, but a PAC is already raising money for him and in August, he registered the domain name votewaxman.com.

While he says for now his intentions are exploratory, he did say there’s a way for millennials to better fundraise: Stop thinking so “us vs. them,” and find a mentor who can guide you through the process — everything from making money for the campaign to navigating mountains of paperwork and deadlines.

“Collaboration between younger and more established people is key,” he said. “Do the work and follow someone else’s lead for a change.”

Omar Woodard, a 31-year-old former aide to both Congressman Chaka Fattah and State Sen. Anthony Williams, is considering running for a state Senate seat in his home neighborhood in North Philadelphia. While he said being adept at networking and fundraising is key, he also said winning a seat as a young person can be about engaging other young people — and not just the transient millennials taking up residence in Philly.

Woodard said the often “forgotten” millennials are the under 40 residents who were born and raised here, the people who have the unique point of view of understanding the city in a way a newcomer naturally couldn’t, but who also have the same concerns other young people do: Jobs, student loans, education, etc.

“Our perspectives are different,” Woodard said in an interview at Girard College, the boarding school where he grew up. “We know these neighborhoods. We know it wasn’t always ‘Templetown’ or ‘Newbold.’ We are the bridge between the people born and raised here who know what it means to be from here and to be experienced.”

Young people who want to see themselves reflected in local, state and federal government have the opportunity to elect other young people, which they’ve already done in recent years. But for some candidates, it could take higher millennial engagement than the 12 percent who showed up to vote in the primary earlier this year.

Waxman says apathy isn’t the problem, but instead it’s how difficult it can be for young people — especially transient ones — to register to vote and to actually vote. The process needs to be streamlined and updated, he said.

Dan Kessler, 25, an investment analyst whose worked on a number of political campaigns and is considering running for Congress in 2016, said engaging young people is as simple as talking to them about issues that impact their daily lives.

“It’s speaking to them about the issues that matter to them,” he said. “They need to be spoken to instead of treated as an afterthought.”

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