by Amy Keller
Not long after he was elected to the Tallahassee City Commission in 2003, Andrew Gillum was attending a conference for elected municipal officials when a fellow attendee asked him to replenish the sugar and creamer at the coffee station.
“I said, ‘Oh, we’ll have to find some of the wait staff to do that.’ He looked up and looked at me and said, ‘Oh gosh, I didn’t even notice your badge. You’re elected? Well good for you, young man. I’ve got shoes and socks older than you,’ ” recalls Gillum, who took office at age 23 and still serves on the city commission.
Many 20- and 30-something officeholders, Gillum says, have concerns about whether they’ve got the skills to handle the job. Establishing credibility can sometimes seem like an uphill battle.
“It was rough the first several months after being elected. You see that one of your colleagues has near 20 years’ experience, another is a hotshot partner in a law firm and the mayor has his own law firm ... and you feel a little bit ill-equipped to sit at the same decision-making table. Because of that, I was a bit restrained in my early days on the commission to speak up or speak out on things I agreed or disagreed with.”
To help young elected officials adapt, Gillum in 2005 decided to form a group that could “develop a curriculum to help support us as we grow as elected officials.” His initial goal, he says, was to find “35 under 35” around the country and bring them together in Washington, D.C. — but wound up attracting 64 at the launch of the Young Elected Officials Network in 2006.
Today, the network, which is based in Tallahassee but operates under the auspices of People for the American Way, a D.C.-based liberal political advocacy group, has more than 700 members.
Members say the non-profit organization, which is free to join, has provided invaluable training through workshops that help them develop their skills in everything from messaging and media to coalition building. The group, which is ostensibly non-partisan but requires its members to be “progressive” thinkers, also serves a forum where young politicos can share ideas that reflect their values of “freedom, fairness and opportunity and equality for all people.”
State Rep. Dwight Bullard (D-Miami), who was elected at age 31, says he joined the YEO Network in 2010 at the suggestion of state Rep. Alan Williams and found the group’s signature event, the annual National Convening Conference, an empowering experience. “It was awe-inspiring to see all these younger elected officials and meeting people who are a lot younger than me really getting involved with the electoral process,” says Bullard.
Bullard was schooled in politics from a young age. His father, Ed Bullard, served in the Florida House from 2000-08, and his mother, Larcenia Bullard, from 1992-2000. She’s now a Florida state senator. But he says he was still confronted by the same pitfalls that young officeholders face — “people wanting to pat you on the head and treat your ideas as if they’re whimsical.” Being able to “bounce ideas” off others in the YEO Network, Bullard says, really encouraged him to “step out there and share your ideas and not be timid and not be intimidated by older colleagues.”
Kristin Dozier, a Democrat who ran for a seat on the Leon County Commission when she was 34 and took office at age 35, says the group “gets into the weeds” on policy issues that can run the gamut from education to health care to paid sick days, but she also enjoys having a “safe environment” where she can sit with people facing similar challenges and “dig into all the aspects of the job.”
The group’s annual conference, she says, also provides invaluable content and connections. Recent conferences, for instance, have featured Education Secretary Arne Duncan, presidential adviser David Plouffe and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. At the most recent conference in June, attendees received advice on everything from the art of fundraising to pursuing self-employment through business startups. Dozier says women in the group also benefited from advice from Christine Jahnke, a D.C.-based speech coach who has prepped high-level officials, including First Lady Michelle Obama and Sen. Al Franken.
Wakulla County commissioner Alan Brock, 31, says he values the staff support the YEO Network provides in helping young leaders develop their ideas and policies. “They have made me aware of many opportunities, and I have worked with their staff to discuss some of my policy initiatives before presenting them.”
Gillum says the YEO Network has “done exactly what I’ve envisioned from the beginning. What we can’t make up for in years of experience, we’ve got to figure out, real quickly with some important training that we can offer our members.”
Building a Pipeline
Andrew Gillum’s Young Elected Officials Network targets elected officials under age 35. He’s since formed two other groups aimed at educating young people who might be interested in pursuing a career in politics:
» Frontline Leaders Academy — Frontline is geared toward people under age 25 who are interested in one day running for public office or being part of a campaign. The program consists of an eight-month-long training program.
» The Young People For — YP4 gives college students in 36 states access to skills and training to help them become political leaders on their campuses and in their communities. “Our whole model is about how do we build and strengthen the next pipeline of leaders. That’s what I try to imbue in the programs I develop,” says Gillum. “I don’t want to be the last youngest person ever elected to the city commission.”