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NC politics still a tough play for millennials and Gen Z

Matt Hughes, Natalie Murdock, Jake Johnson and Elizar Posada.
X/NC government websites/Facebook
Matt Hughes, Natalie Murdock, Jake Johnson and Elizar Posada.

Eliazar Posada, a member of the Carrboro Town Council, never imagined he’d run for office. As a queer Latino millennial, he knew his background was different from that of most politicians.

His mother organized farmworkers in Texas. His family was homeless for a brief period in his childhood, and he made tacos with his mother to sell before school.

“My mom always instilled in us that family and community is what we got. And we have their back, and they'll have our back,” Posada said.

Posada said he's glad to defy the usual expectations as an elected official.

Despite the emergence of young leaders like 30-year-old Posada, North Carolina's political landscape remains dominated by older officials. While political action committees and civic engagement nonprofits are working to help young candidates run and win elections, challenges like campaign costs, low pay and redistricting make it difficult for young people to succeed in politics. Removing some of these barriers for campaigns could help usher in a new generation of diverse leaders.

Young leaders in politics: A mixed picture

Few young people hold elected positions in North Carolina, similar to states like Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. Brittany Anlar, lead graduate research assistant at the Young Elected Leaders Project, conducted a study from 2018-22 that found less than 10% of young officials (ages 18-35) in these states' lower chambers and showed a "persistent absence" of young lawmakers, or never holding more than 10% of the seats. In contrast, states like Florida and Minnesota consistently had more young leaders and a "persistent presence" of young people holding 10% or more of the seats during the four-year period. Three states saw a drop in young representatives, while four—Wyoming, Illinois, North Dakota and Oregon—saw a rise.

In the N.C. General Assembly, there are 28 millennial legislators (ages 27-42) and zero Generation Z legislators (ages 21-26) out of 170 total, Anlar found. The average age of a North Carolina  lawmaker is a little over 57. About a dozen of these young state lawmakers are under 35 while the rest are millennials over age 35.

In 2018, a wave of youth entered Congress. But that increase hasn’t continued, said Anlar. She said that many young Congress members, like U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Lauren Underwood, remain in office.  But the advantages for incumbents makes it tough for new faces to break through.

In the N.C. General Assembly, there are 28 millennial legislators (ages 27-42) and zero Generation Z legislators (ages 21-26) out of 170 total. Credit: Young Elected Leaders Project, Eagleton Institute of Politics

Initiatives to support young leaders

One leader in the state sets an example for young people interested in politics: Anderson Clayton, at 25, is the youngest state party chair in the nation as head of the N.C. Democratic Party. She’s gained national attention for her efforts to sway rural voters in North Carolina toward Democrats. 

Organizations like Run for Something, a progressive political organization, are trying to support more young leaders in North Carolina  by recruiting young people to run for office. Dozens of other organizations like IGNITE and the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership provide resources and training for people interested in elected office.

Posada has been endorsed by Run for Something for his race to hold his seat on the Carrboro Town Council this year. RFS also endorsed Catherine Fray for Carrboro Town Council and Matt Hughes for Hillsboro City Council.

RFS looks outside typical candidate pools like lawyers and instead recruits people like high school football coaches who have leadership skills and community ties, said Paul Bradfield, Southeast regional director at RFS. He said while part of his job is convincing people they can be political candidates, he also has to prepare them for the big undertaking of campaigning. 

RFS often focuses on down-ballot races to increase local impact and build a bench of future leaders, Bradfield said. Part of what makes RFS unique is that they play the long game by running Democratic candidates even in heavily Republican areas in an effort to shift the electorate over time, he said. 

Factors influencing young candidates’ success

Voters get excited about young people running for office, Hughes said. But young people interested in politics face obstacles like campaigning, low youth voter turnout and fewer resources for candidates of color.


Campaign costs and networking are hurdles for young candidates, Bradfield said. Young candidates with kids or rigid jobs could also find it tough to make time for campaigning.

State Sen. Natalie Murdock, D-Chatham, Durham, said getting campaign funding was a challenge as a Black millennial woman, as many young candidates of color don’t have as many resources for funding. Murdock had to convince herself that she deserved to run. She was the first Black woman under 40 elected to the N.C. Senate.

“The first time someone said, ‘You should run for something,’ I literally laughed,” she said.

Campaigning in North Carolina takes more money because it’s a purple state, said state Rep. Jake Johnson, R-Henderson, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford, who won his first election at 22. Because many races are hotly contested, Johnson said campaigning in North Carolina can be more expensive.

There are also voters’ potential reactions to the candidate’s age. Hughes first ran for city council at 25 and remembered one voter who commented Hughes was the same age as his son.  But many people were excited to see a young person running, he said. 

Posada said he feels more pushback about his Latino identity than his age. Some critics have said he brings race into the conversation too much, he said.

Turnout, diversity and timing

Young candidates do better when people their age vote, according to the Electoral Studies journal. In North Carolina, millennials and Generation Z voters have the lowest voter turnout. But in the 2018 midterm elections, nationally, younger generations outvoted the more senior baby boomers, the Pew Research Center reports

A candidate's success sometimes boils down to resources, which can break down along racial lines. Anlar’s research also showed that the racial breakdown of young congressional candidates is generally proportional to the population, but the nonwhite candidates are more likely to lose their races. 

Hughes said that’s because white candidates tend to have more access to resources and funds. 

To increase their candidates’ chances of success, Johnson said the parties should get young people into government at the local level first and advised young leaders to think about the timing of their campaigns. 

“The biggest mistake I see young candidates make is they get in their head that they want to run for something, but then they go up against someone who was very established and has done a good job,” he said. “And you make a lot of enemies within your grassroots and your inner party; the folks that if you just waited one more time, they might actually be looking for somebody to fill that role and would be on board. So, timing is everything.”

Challenges once in office

Some young candidates struggle to stay in office because of burnout and low pay, said Reed Howard, vice president of strategy and public affairs at the Millennial Action Project

Pay depends on the style of legislature: Citizen legislatures tend to have smaller staffs and elected officials who work full-time jobs outside of lawmaking at typically lower pay. 

North Carolina’s hybrid model means legislators’ time commitment is more than a part-time job, and their compensation is slightly higher than a true citizen legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But North Carolina legislators receive some of the lowest compensation in the nation, WCNC reported, at just under $14,000 yearly in base salary.

Anlar found that young people are more likely to run for offices that offer better wages. The hours and pay of the North Carolina  legislature can be more difficult for lawmakers to handle than other similar statehouses because it’s harder to maintain a full-time job, but the pay isn’t as much as other legislatures with better compensation, she said.

Murdock, a consultant, maintains a flexible schedule due to unexpected voting calls. She's seen officials leave for better-paying roles or quit due to financial constraints. 

“The way that I phrase it is, ‘What if we are missing out on the next Ayanna Pressley, Stacey Abrams, Ilhan Omar because we didn't figure out a way to keep them in office because they were in jeopardy of losing their home,’” she said.

Posada considered running for the General Assembly but couldn’t afford to live on that salary alone, and the time commitment would mean he couldn’t keep his job.  He said the system favors the wealthy and needs change.

“We'll continue to see the same results: rich white people who have the ability to retire and serve in office and spend their time without any compensation, or minimum compensation, are going to be the ones that continue to hold the power in North Carolina,” he said.

The redistricting challenge

Bradfield from Run for Something said the frequently changing legislative maps in North Carolina make recruitment difficult. It’s hard to persuade someone to run in an uncertain district, he said.

North Carolina has been known as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country since the 1990s, an analysis by Democracy Docket found. "Gerrymandering" is when electoral districts are drawn to favor one party over another. Under a gerrymandered map, the 2012 election resulted in more Republicans than Democrats in the North Carolina congressional delegation, the analysis stated. Those seats had been evenly split between the parties prior to the redrawn congressional map. After years of litigation over the redrawn maps, the N.C. Supreme Court reversed its own decision and allowed partisan gerrymandering in the state, Politico reported. 

Critics argued the North Carolina high court’s decision was a blow to Black voters and democracy

At the state level, Murdock’s races were affected by redrawn maps. She first ran for Senate because redistricting opened a seat and later moved to South Durham because she knew the maps would change again.

Despite canvassing in downtown Durham and at Duke University, those areas were drawn out of her district, and she lost those connections. 

Johnson said he was also at a disadvantage because of redistricting. Still, he secured the seat. 

“It was the worst possible situation. I got double bunked with another incumbent, a Republican who had been there twice as long as I had and had represented a majority of the district,” he said. 


Unique value of young leaders

Anlar said one benefit of young elected leaders is they tend to legislate and connect with voters differently.  Research shows they often use social media to communicate with constituents, which helps them gain name recognition among voters, and are more bipartisan in tackling issues. They also are more likely to push to modernize the legislature, such as streaming meetings online, she said. 

Howard said the Millennial Action Project focuses on lowering polarization by connecting young lawmakers of different parties.  The organization formed Future Caucus, a network of millennial legislators in multiple states focused on issues facing younger generations.

Murdock is part of the N.C. Future Caucus and said the group helped her find common ground with Republican state Sen. David Craven Jr., R-Anson,  Montgomery,  Randolph,  Richmond,  Union, on the issues of child care and affordable housing. 

Murdock said the younger generation brings lived experience to current issues. When she was elected, she was still paying off student loans. She saw her apartment in Durham double in price, and is part of the gig economy, as are many millennials. 

She also said some of the legislation affects her more personally, such as the limits on abortion, as she would likely have a high-risk pregnancy if she does decide to have kids.

Looking ahead to Generation Z

Murdock is hopeful about contributions from future Generation Z lawmakers in the North Carolina  statehouse. She pointed to the successful campaign of Florida Democrat Maxwell Frost, who gained attention as the first Gen Z lawmaker in the U.S. Congress.

Frost has called for public financing of campaigns. While groups like Run for Something can provide added support to young candidates, their recruits face an uphill climb given the rigors and expense of campaigning.

Meanwhile, Bradfield said young candidates shouldn’t wait to get politically involved.

“A lot of millennials and Gen Z have been told that we need to wait our turn. But I feel like our time is now,” said Bradfield. “The burden of the future that we have to live in, with all the broken systems, the broken environment, we have to be the ones that bear the burden of carrying our country and society through them.”



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This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.