© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Meet The Gen Z Candidates Running For City Office

Nick de la Canal
Gabe Cartagena is a 21-year-old UNC Charlotte student and district 4 candidate for Charlotte City Council.

Running for local office can be an all-consuming venture. Now imagine running while studying for final exams.

That's the situation that Gabriel Cartagena, 21, will soon find himself in as he launches his bid for a City Council seat this coming election.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the UNC Charlotte senior was hunched over his laptop at a coffee bar across the street from his apartment looking a little sleepy, and with good reason.

"I closed the bar at 3 a.m. last night. Got home. Slept. Then woke up at 5 a.m. to go to the Tuesday Morning Breakfast," he said, referring to the weekly public affairs forum in east Charlotte.

After that, he had a phone call with a donor, drove here for coffee, and for the last few hours, he said, "I've been sitting here reaching out to donors trying to get some campaign contributions, and I've also been reaching out to students to see who would be interested in volunteering for me this weekend."

He glanced down at his laptop, plastered with stickers, and brushed some hair behind his pierced ears, which correspond to his pierced nose.

If you thought working nights as a bartender while running a city council campaign was stressful, Cartagena is also anxious about spending money on a suit for a campaign event later in the day, and finding money to buy textbooks for his last semester at UNCC, which begins Aug. 20.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
Joel Odom


Such is the hustle when you're one of the Gen Z candidates running for local office this election - the first they can participate in as candidates. That's because the minimum age to hold local office in North Carolina is 21, and the oldest members of Gen Z are just now turning 22.

Some of the youngest candidates this election are cutting it close on that age limit. Joel Odom, for example, is running for mayor as a Democrat. He's only 20 right now. He'll turn 21 on Oct. 8 - exactly one month before the general election.

Also barely making the age requirement is Joshua Richardson - the only Republican candidate for city council at-large - who turned 21 on Monday, Aug. 12.

The fresh-faced candidates are focusing on many issues in their campaigns - crime, education, economic mobility - and all of them are citing housing costs as among their top priorities.

In particular, Cartagena, who's running for city council district 4, has been studying cyclical poverty and transportation. He says he's concerned that people making low-incomes, like himself, are increasingly struggling to make rent. He says he only makes about $25,000 a year bartending.

"We can't afford to live here," he said, "And when we can't afford to live here, we have things like apartments where - if the water lines break, we put in work orders that get ignored for a month. That's a problem."

Mayoral candidate Joel Odom says he's also focusing on affordable housing and its intersection with crime. Both issues are personal to his childhood.

"I grew up in public housing - Piedmont Courts," he said, "So I saw shootings, violence. I've seen it. I've lived it."

And Joshua Richardson, the young Republican, says he hopes to tackle a slew of topics if elected, among them bringing fiscal conservatism to city council.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
Joshua Richardson


So far, none of these candidates say their opponents have targeted them for their age. Actually it's garnered praise in some situations. Mayor Vi Lyles, for instance, told WFAE's Charlotte Talks she appreciates that her young opponent, Odom, is focusing on the city's violent crime rate.

"He's participated in our Generation Nation and our youth council, and what he represents in this community are people that are passionate about doing this. I really appreciate what he's saying," Lyles said.

While the young candidates say they would be disappointed if they lose, they hope their campaigns will inspire other members of their generation to get involved. Odom says that's because he and others his age are open to new ideas and fresh solutions.

"Like that saying goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Well, I'm a young dog," he said, "So I'm out here willing to listen to the people."

The people will get to have their say on the candidates in the upcoming primary, scheduled for Sept. 10, followed by the general election on Nov. 8.

Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal