When Stephanie Chang began knocking on doors in and around Detroit in pursuit of a statehouse seat in the Michigan legislature, the most common question she received didn’t have anything to do with her policy positions or her decade of experience as a community organizer.
“How old are you, anyways?” voters asked. Chang is 30, but admits to looking a more youthful 20.
Perhaps there was some initial skepticism to overcome, but ultimately Chang prevailed, winning the primary in her heavily Democratic, African-American district earlier this month with nearly 50 percent of the vote.
If – as is likely the case – she is sworn into office next year, Chang, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, will be something of an anomaly: The first Asian-American woman in the legislature and one of the few youthful faces in a body that continues to be dominated by older white men.
“There is a voice that’s missing,” Chang said. “Getting more people of color into office is really important. Our immigrant communities are growing very quickly and if we’re not addressing the problems there, we’re going to have even bigger problems down the line.”
But in 2014 there are renewed efforts underway across the political spectrum to encourage more young, minority candidates like Chang to run for office and secure that first crucial political win – both to bring much-needed diversity to state legislatures and to build a pipeline to national office.
Both parties have placed a heavy premium on diversity in recent years. Democrats have made it a major selling point while the GOP has vowed to work harder to represent and attract a broader swath of the electorate. A quick glance at the statistics, nevertheless, tells a sobering story: the 113th Congress, despite being heralded as the most diverse in history, is still comprised of only 18 percent women and 15 percent minorities.
The key to changing that, the thinking goes, might be to start early. Chang was a beneficiary of one such push. She was among the first wave of candidates to be endorsed and financially supported by LaunchProgress, a nonprofit and political action committee created earlier this year to support young candidates, many of them minorities, running for state office for the first time.
Its founders have few reservations about youth. Pichaya Poy Winichakul and Luke Squire, both 25, are recent Oberlin grads who quit their day jobs in New York and Washington D.C., respectively, to get the organization off the ground.
The idea of a PAC dedicated exclusively to raising candidates who better represent the diversity of the country – women, minorities, individuals from low-income families – came about in the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, when even after the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in federal elections, Winichakul and Squire still felt fresh voices and ideas were few and far between in the political landscape.
Both felt the best remedy was to start grooming candidates earlier in their political careers and helping them secure wins. Besides small financial contributions – they have disbursed $6,250 so far – they offer strategy and communications advice and a team of volunteers to get out the vote on Election Day.
“Our whole idea is that we’re not just throwing money at these campaigns, but we’re providing other kinds of support and filling the bench with progressives who can then go on to national leadership positions,” Winichakul said.
LaunchProgress has endorsed three candidates in addition to Chang in Michigan, as well as three running for office for the first time in North Carolina and three in Ohio.
Republicans have an even more robust, longer-running effort in pursuit of the same goal. In 2011, the Republican State Leadership Committee launched the Future Majority Project. The initiative, chaired by Governors Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, recruits, trains and supports 100 candidates of Hispanic descent and 150 women candidates nationwide for state seats. The RSLC spent $5 million on the effort and achieved modest success, helping to elect 84 new GOP women to office as well as 15 new Hispanic Republicans.
This year, the project has expanded to target 200 candidates of varying minority backgrounds and 300 new women candidates.
“We recognize we need to do better and we realize it’s not just to win elections. With the changing demographics, we need candidates who can speak to the communities that they’re from,” said Jill Bader, a spokesperson for the RLSC. “Asking is definitely a part of the process and reminding these candidates that we want them in the party and they are incredibly valued in their backgrounds and experience.”
Nonetheless, even with institutional support, young, minority candidates often they say they face additional barriers.
Cecil Brockman, 29, a Democratic candidate for a North Carolina statehouse seat who was endorsed by LaunchProgress, spent his career working in campaigns. Still, he never imagined that he would be the candidate himself, until he was encouraged repeatedly to run.
“I just don’t believe they believe they can do it or it’s an opportunity they can take,” he said of other minority candidates. “For me personally because I had always worked behind the scenes, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be out front and be the person.”
Chang, too, said she faced many of the same self-doubts that women often confront when asked to run office. She said “no” several times before getting to “yes.”
“As someone who grew up in the Midwest, I didn’t have a lot of visuals of Asian-American women who had served in office, so running wasn’t a thought that entered my mind,” she said. “It took a while, but eventually I got to the point where I thought, yes, I’m qualified, yes I can win and yes I will make a difference.”