Most of them weren’t yet born when Dianne Feinstein was elected to the Senate. Now, this group of under-30 locals is running to change their corner of California.
Article by Sarah Klearman
Additional reporting by Danny Acosta & Charles Russo
It’s been a formative year so far for James Coleman.
From his dorm in Cambridge, Mass., Coleman — alongside many of his fellow Americans — began monitoring the early stirrings of the 2020 presidential race. As the pandemic set in, he watched again, this time from his home in South San Francisco, as protests over George Floyd’s death wracked the country. In June, he looked on in dismay as South San Francisco’s City Council responded dismissively — condescendingly, even — to the legions of young South City residents demanding police accountability and change.
Then, in August, Coleman put his own name into the race for South San Francisco City Council. James Coleman, the ballots read, Biological Researcher/Environmentalist. The ballot, of course, made no mention of the fact that Coleman, a senior regenerative biology major at Harvard University, is 21 years old.
“All it takes is a discussion with voters to let them know you’re really serious about what you’re running for,” Coleman said, when asked how his age has factored into his candidacy. He is working to graduate early so that he might more easily stay in South San Francisco if he wins a city council seat, and will consider online school for his senior year.
In launching his campaign, Coleman joined a highly diverse roster of other candidates under the age of 30 running their own races for city council seats on the San Francisco Peninsula, from Jeremy Sarnecky, 26, in San Bruno to Alex Núñez, 29, of Mountain View. The youngest of the group, San Carlos’s J.T. Eden, is 18 years old.
All are among the oldest members of Gen Z, or the youngest crop of Millennials. This year those generational groups will rival the Baby Boomers generation as the largest voting bloc in America, according to a study by The Center for American Progress — a dynamic that could fundamentally change both election outcomes and the demographics of candidates choosing to throw their hats into the ring.
It’s a trend with roots that precede 2020. In 2018, for example, the United States’ Congress swore in its most diverse freshman class in history — including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, then 29, was the youngest woman in congressional history to take office.
But the extenuating circumstances — the pandemic, the recession and national calls for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death — served for many as a kind of call to action, according to William H. Frey, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based think tank.
“It is likely that the pandemic and recent activism will further galvanize this generation to promote an array of progressive causes,” Frey, one of the authors of the Center for American Progress’s study, wrote in a blog post over the summer. This younger demographic, he added, would likely bear the brunt of the pandemic-prompted economic fall out. And because nearly 40 percent of these voters are “black and brown,” the springtime calls for social justice and nationwide police reform continue to be “deeply personal for them,” according to Frey.
Surveys cited by Frey show Gen Z and Millennial generations tend to wax more progressive on issues like “immigration reform, criminal justice, environmental protection, the role of government, and the importance of diversity.”
That’s rung incredibly true for many of the Peninsula’s young candidates. Like Coleman, many felt as though their voices were going unheard by their elected officials, and the events of the last few months cemented their decision to launch their own campaigns.
“People’s very valid concerns and fears were being brushed to the side,” Raven Malone, a 29-year-old candidate for Palo Alto City Council, said of her motivation to run. “I’ve always been someone (to) stand up for people who don’t have the ability to stand up for themselves. I wanted to be their voice.”
Malone, a systems engineer for Perspecta, moved to Palo Alto with her fiancé in March. They’d long before that been drawn to the city by its small-town feel, according to Malone, who said she quickly realized Palo Alto’s local politics were not imbued with the same kind of charm.
“It’s been ugly. Local politics has not been kind,” Malone said, citing online attacks on her character. (In a blog post, Vice Mayor and Councilperson Tom Dubois described Malone as someone “new to town” who “doesn’t like what she sees,” the Palo Alto Daily Post reported, and inferred she would not act with voters’ best interest in mind.)
Building more housing is among Malone’s top priorities — as it is with many of her peers. Each of the candidates cite housing — affordable housing, more housing, rent controlled housing — as one of the central tenets of their platforms. Many spent childhoods in Peninsula cities they say they cannot afford to return to as young adults.
Eden, San Carlos’s 18-year-old City Council candidate, says his motivation to run goes beyond policy: it is about both process and progress.
“I have had a lot of conversations with people who feel that the way the City Council operates is they make decisions, and by the time the public gets engaged, it’s already been decided,” he said. “The policy making process should start with the people…. I think I’d definitely bring an energy and a perspective to our council that isn’t quite there now.”
He cites East Bay Congressman Eric Swalwell and his book, Endgame, as inspiration to run.
“There’s a line in there… about how he ran for Congress because he believes young people bring a new voice and energy into politics, and demand better of our elected officials,” Eden said. “That message really resonated with me. It allowed me to believe that I could have a voice in the conversation — that I could step up and run myself.”
Raven Malone — Palo Alto
Occupation: Systems Engineer
Hometown: Mobile, Alabama
Political Party: Democrat
Political role models/heroes: There are a lot of them. There’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg. AOC (Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) is amazing. John Lewis. Angela Davis. I think that’s the short list.
Motivation for running: I got really involved with social justice after the shelter-in-place happened. I was speaking to a lot of Palo Alto residents about their concerns, and then seeing the way that things were being done at the council level — it just felt like a lot of people were being left unheard. A lot of their very valid concerns and fears were being brushed to the side. I’ve always tried my best to stand up for what I believe in, and to help people who have needed it — who didn’t want to, or didn’t have the ability to stand up for themselves. I’ve always been the person who wants to be that voice. So that’s what encouraged me to run: just wanting to be the voice for people feeling unheard in Palo Alto.
Main policy priorities: Creating better infrastructure for our future, advocating for housing as a human right and reimagining community safety.
In terms of better infrastructure — that means more sustainable infrastructure to combat climate change. Better infrastructure to match the housing we need — bike lanes, public transport. As well as a fiber optic network to all of the homes in Palo Alto.
How has your age been factoring into your candidacy for voters? I’ve gotten questions about my age. I’ve even gotten questions about the length of my residency in Palo Alto — that one makes more sense. But I had someone question my ability to comprehend Palo Alto, which I thought was a little insulting. I’m an engineer, so I’m used to complexity — it’s my job. I would say my age has brought on some concern, but for the most part, I’ve been met with more people who are enthusiastic about young people running than people who are a little wary about it.
What are your thoughts on regulation of Silicon Valley & the tech industry’s impact on your community? It’s really important that we don’t prioritize corporations over people. That’s kind of what’s been happening — just look at our jobs-to-housing ratio. We have the largest ratio in the Bay Area. I don’t like to discourage tech. I’m a tech employee myself. But I think it’s important that if we’re inviting more tech, that we also invite more housing. You have to find that balance, and right now we’re not there. We’re making Palo Alto a place where you cannot even imagine buying a home unless you make $300,000 a year.
Tell me your favorite thing about living in Palo Alto.
The access to parks and open spaces is my favorite thing by far. My fiancé and I have a 7-year-old lab, but she has the energy of a two year old puppy. And any direction we walk in, there’s an open space or a park. I think that’s absolutely amazing. You go outside, people are walking and biking — and now, because of COVID, people are eating outside, too. It’s a really friendly welcoming vibe.
James Coleman—South San Francisco
Hometown: South San Francisco
Political Party: Democrat/Democratic Socialist
Political Role models/heroes: AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and Bernie Sanders, because they have the courage to stand up for what they believe is right. And like them, I’m not influenced by large sums of money from corporate donors. They genuinely want to improve people’s lives, and make sure government works for everyone — not just the few at the top.
Motivation for running: I think (my motivation) really comes from the unresponsiveness of the City Council. Not just the unresponsiveness — the dismissiveness and condescension they had toward young people when they went to meetings in the beginning of June, demanding changes to public safety and law enforcement. Many of those people were getting involved in politics for the first time, and were quickly frustrated by the way the council reacted to them.
Main policy priorities: Acting on climate change, building affordable housing and improving public safety.
How does your age factor into your candidacy for voters? I think a discussion is all it takes to let someone know you’re really serious about what you’re running for. And that the ideas that I have — while they might be very progressive and very new — are also still very possible. A lot of these ideas are very popular among the people we talk to. So my age doesn’t seem to be a super big factor. Based on conversations with people, they’re thinking more about the ideas I have, not [how young I am]. Although some of them like seeing young people get involved with politics. I also think being part of Gen Z has given me an advantage in terms of my digital presence — being able to work with my friends who can do website design, videography and photography. My campaign is basically managed entirely by college students.
What are your thoughts on regulation of Silicon Valley & the tech industry’s impact on your community? I think they should be taxed fairly — they shouldn’t be skipping out on billions of dollars in taxes, and they should be contributing to the community. That’s why I’m a huge supporter of Prop 15, to ensure these multi-billion dollar industries are taxed fairly and contributing like they should be. When it comes to the community, these are companies that employ extremely talented coders, scientists and consultants, and a lot of that wealth does not translate over to our communities of color and our low-income communities… One of my policy priorities is linking back the large biotech firms in South City to students in our high schools. It’d provide them with professional education, and insight necessary to understand what it is to work in the STEM industry.
We also need to make sure any increase in industrial development is met with an increase in housing.
Tell me your favorite thing about living in South City. I really like the diversity and the culture that exists around South City. We’re a working class city, and growing up here I never realized just how diverse it was — until I went to (Boston). The Boston community is very white. I grew up with so many people who were Latinx, Chinese, Filipino — just really early on, I experienced so many other cultures, and people. And that made me really appreciate the diversity we see in our community.
Antonio Lopez—East Palo Alto
Hometown: East Palo Alto, CA
Political Party: Democrat
Political role models/heroes: Cesar Chavez.
Motivation for running: The need for young folks in office. The fact that the youngest person on the [EPA city] council is 41 years old. Seeing a millennial generation come back from college and not be able to afford living in East Palo Alto, not knowing where they’re going to live, if they’ll be able to keep living in their hometowns.
Second, seeing Covid, and the enormous, enormous disparities we’re facing and how Covid has exacerbated that. How we’ve seen one of the worst housing crises in a long time, folks are getting kicked out, particularly tenants. Thirdly, the need to bridge communities. There’s a lot of racial tension between different communities: African-American and Latino specifically. I consider myself a unifier, and I want to lead by example making sure our voice as millennials are represented.
Main policy priorities: Housing, community safety, promoting small businesses, expanding the city’s libraries. We need people who are creative and innovative who can think outside the box. As someone who is a writer who thinks about a different world and imagination, it’s important to have that artistic perspective in office.
How has your age been factoring into your candidacy for voters? Right now, we’re having a serious voice not represented. I think me being 26, I’m old enough to have some experience in the world, going to school and various colleges, but I’m young enough to know both the naivety and ambition that my generation represents. It’s entrepreneurial, it’s open-minded, it’s very multi-ethnic, and it’s the future, more importantly.
What are your thoughts on regulation of Silicon Valley & the tech industry’s impact on your community? They think about the future but it’s only certain people’s futures. It’s only about the middle class tech yuppie-esque person. When you think about it, who’s represented when all these technologies come out? If we’re pushing out people, and it’s predominantly black and brown people, then in my opinion that’s not Silicon Valley that they’re serving. That’s a different demographic of folks and right now what we’re experiencing in Silicon Valley is an important question of, who is this place for? Right now, the barometer is not on black and brown low-income people.
…I challenge people—because we’re essentially in one of the most liberal, progressive places in the world—to actually make policies like progressive taxation so the Zuckerberg’s of the world, the Twitter CEOs, pay their fair share, because right now they’re not. We need to have equity, so the people who cater, who mow lawns, who dish wash, can actually afford to stay living here. And that’s the other Silicon Valley that’s not represented time and time again.
Tell us one of your favorite things about living in East Palo Alto. It’s the fact that we’re two-and-a-half square miles and we have so much hustling and bustling culture. We were one of the pillars of the hyphy movement. We have a historic African-American community that was one of the pillars of the Black Power movement. I’m very proud my father was part of the generation of Latinos who moved in the ’80s to come here, to settle here, that they were able to find a home here, and I’m also proud of the fact that we have the largest Pacific Islander population outside of the state of Hawaii in the United States. This is an enormously rich community in a cultural sense and I’m very proud of that. I will fight every inch to make sure it continues that way.
J.T. Eden—San Carlos
Hometown: San Carlos
Political Party: Democrat
Political role models/heroes: There are two. AOC (Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), for making herself accessible to the public in the way that she has. And communicating the role of Congress the way that she has — that makes her a role model for me. Then Eric Swalwell, from the East Bay, is someone who inspired me to run.
Motivation for running: Throughout high school — and I was dually enrolled in Cañada College, so I was technically also in college, too — I did a lot of public service work. I was an intern for Jackie Speier, and I did a lot as a student senator at Cañada. That work was really rewarding, and I felt like I was making a difference. I imagined myself running for office at some point, especially seeing both locally and nationally what’s been going on. I’ve been a lot of problems in the conversation around climate change, and, more locally, affordability and social justice. Those are conversations I feel like I could lend my voice to. When a seat opened up on (San Carlos City Council), I thought it’d be an opportunity to bring my perspective to the conversation and run.
Main policy priorities: Support for childcare, up-zoning of neighborhoods to alleviate the housing crisis, taking greater action on climate change.
How has your age been factoring into your candidacy for voters? It’s a polarizing issue, that’s for sure. I would say the vast majority of people I interact with are excited that a young person is getting involved with our local politics. That said, most of the people I talk to are excited, and are planning on voting for me, or have voted for me — in part because of my age, and that new perspective. I have also talked to a fair amount of people who say they have respect for my campaign, they’re excited that I’m getting involved, and that they’re going to vote for someone else. I understand that as well.
What are your thoughts on regulation of Silicon Valley & the tech industry’s impact on your community? I’ll say that the city of San Carlos has zero control over tech regulation, but my broader take on the regulation of social media — it can be a polarizing place. I have a deep understanding of how (these platforms) can be polarizing, how you can get caught up in seeing things that support only your world view. I’m not an expert on tech regulation, but I do feel a great deal of concern about that.
Tell me one of your favorite things about living in San Carlos. My favorite thing about the city is our community. How, broadly speaking, we treat each other. I think in local politics we often talk about maintaining the character of our city. And often we talk about the character of our city as being a physical thing, but the character of San Carlos is that we support and care for each other in times of need. I’ve seen it throughout my life (here). I don’t know that that’s necessarily unique to San Carlos, but it’s the real strength of our community.
Alex Núñez — Mountain View
Occupation: Cybersecurity Advisor
Hometown: Bell, California
Political Party: Democrat
Political role models/heroes: Definitely Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, but more as north stars than role models or heroes.
Motivation for running: I’ve been living here for a few years now and since I’ve gotten here I’ve been interested in pushing for policy changes that benefit working class people … And, just to be honest, I’ve seen our current city council take many actions that are detrimental to the economic and material well-being of our working and vulnerable people. So I decided that the best place I could be the most effective in serving people’s basic needs would be on the city council.
Main policy priorities: In this world, COVID recovery has to be a top priority …With regards to housing, I would like to see us modify our land use policies and make sure that we’re allowing the production of more housing. I also want to make sure that we preserve the rent control program that we have in Mountain View…the people here have voted for it two times already and our current city council keeps trying to destroy it, so it’s an issue of respecting the will of the voters. And lastly, I want to make sure that we have energy resilience during wildfires, so that we have operating traffic lights, police, firefighters and hospitals.
How has your age been factoring into your candidacy for voters? When I talk to people, I don’t feel that they’re thinking about my age. I bring it up more than other people might, like just to get laughs out of people. …The reality of my campaign is that people have been encouraging of it.
What are your thoughts on regulation of Silicon Valley & the tech industry’s impact on your community? I think that regulations are a necessary thing that we need to have in market-based capitalist society, because without any checks then you have bad outcomes. Regulation is the tool that the public sector has to manage the negative effects that these companies are having on a local level. So for example, one of the things we need to look at is how we can actually limit the growth of office/commercial space in our city against the actual number of affordable housing units that we have. Not market rate housing but affordable.
Tell me one of your favorite things about living in Mountain View. The people. We have really good people who care about each other. It’s like a small city, but a global impact.
Jeremy Sarnecky — San Bruno
Hometown: San Bruno
Political Party/Affiliation: Democrat & Progressive
Political role models/heroes: I was a big believer in Bernie Sanders, but also some of the early political philosophers of the early Progressive movement: John Dewey, John Kenneth Galbraith and C. Wright Mills.
Motivation for running: I am the son of a public school teacher (my mom teaches 2nd Grade in South SF) and what I saw was a trend that the San Bruno Parks School District was basically liquidating as many public properties as possible…they just closed two elementary schools in the last six years. I was kind of pissed off because not only do I strongly believe in higher education but also in public sector jobs (which my mom is a part of). So I felt like the school board was squandering the educational opportunities for the next generation and packing as many kids into smaller classrooms.
Main policy priorities: Clean energy,housing, education. I also really want to inspire young people and make politics feel real to them, so it isn’t just something that happens on TV, but something they can take part in.
How has your age been factoring into your candidacy for voters? It’s been extremely positive. I have a lot of people telling me that they voted for me because I’m a young person and they want new blood. When I decided to run, I knew I had a good chance, but I also knew that I didn’t care if I won or not, because I wanted to push my ideas forward. As I’ve gotten further down to the end [of this campaign] it actually turned out that a lot of older people were interested in voting for a younger person because they want change.
What are your thoughts on regulation of Silicon Valley & the tech industry’s impact on your community? I definitely feel that a company, like YouTube, which is making $15 billion …I wish that they’d spend more of that money into the community and especially to help save the planet from climate catastrophe. I don’t feel like I want to tax them into non-existence. Talking to some people in my city, they don’t like YouTube. But I feel like it’s something to be proud of that we have this super iconic company in our city. Let’s try to work with them to do more, because I feel like they want to.
Tell me one of your favorite things about living in San Bruno. It’s got to be family and friends. I also like being close to the biotech industry in South San Francisco. I think that’s a huge plus. And of course, going to the bars here (when they were open).
Lissette Espinoza-Garnica—Redwood City
Hometown: Redwood City, CA
Occupation: Caregiver; Pre-school teaching assistant (unemployed due to COVID-19)
Political Party: Unaffiliated
Political role models/heroes: Angela Davis. bell hooks.
Motivation for running: I just wanted city council to reflect more of the communities and speak to the concerns of working class residents. Issues like climate change and the housing crisis, that prioritizes those of us that are most vulnerable to those impacts. I wanted to speak in favor of unions, working class people to address systemic issues like racism in our community and discrimination.
Main policy priorities: As a Democrat Socialist, my practices come from Marxist theory. I’m someone who prioritizes people over profit, always. I think systems such as governance have to support regular residents, regular people, all residents. I try to implement a lens that is intersectional, socialist, feminist. That’s my approach to solutions.
How has your age been factoring into your candidacy for voters? As someone who is real young, people are excited to see someone coming with fresh new ideas. I’m someone who’s lived in this area the last few decades, experienced displacement, studied the contemporary issues we’re facing systemically, the ways it affects us, and what is projected to come if we don’t consider things such as racism and climate change [effects] on marginalized people, for example.
What are your thoughts on regulation of Silicon Valley & the tech industry’s impact on your community? There’s not been any type of regulation…into balancing how much growth is coming in to have it have an equitable impact on all of us. There’s so much enterprise coming in, tech companies and high-earning workers that are non-unionized. Tech workers are largely coming in and moving to these areas and displacing the working class residents. There’s not a housing-to-jobs balance. There’s a major imbalance of the amount of housing being developed compared to the amount of office space, jobs being created. So they’re creating lots of office spaces, even now, but they’re not trying to balance it out with as many housing units, varieties of housing options that are for multiple families, large families, extremely low-income people. That’s a major crisis we’re facing.
We’re not prioritizing our local residents enough in hiring and we’re not paying our local residents that are working class enough to afford to stay as growth continues. We have to consider how we’re going to grow without displacement, which I know we can do with up zoning: those single family residential neighborhoods that are predominately white affluent neighborhoods, those have to be rezoned to be mixed use affordable and public housing, more folks, more integration in our communities.
Tell us one of your favorite things about living in Redwood City. Where I’m running [Redwood City D3] is largely a Latinx population. It’s a minority majority district. I’m so comfortable running in a community that I belong to, that looks like me and also that is as diverse as a community where I feel at home. … As someone who feels comfortable where I am (because I’ve studied so much on the issues that affect this community directly), I feel comfortable that I can come up with solutions to help remedy issues like gentrification, as well as alleviate the harm of displacement and poverty.
Juan Mendez—East Palo Alto
Hometown: East Palo Alto, CA
Occupation: Admin for small business
Political party: Democrat
Political role models/heroes: AOC. Obama.
Motivation for running: My motivation stemmed from the lack of opportunities for youth to get involved in local city government. It also stemmed from all the development and changes that were happening to East Palo Alto and the very little benefits we as community members were benefiting from them. For example, the Amazon building went up and we were supposed to get 30 percent of our residents hired in those buildings but unfortunately we don’t have the most engineers in our city, so how do we negotiate better deals so our community interest is always set forth? In terms of opportunities for the youth, when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I went out to city council trying to get my foot in the door looking for an opportunity but unfortunately there was no such internship or opportunity available. From that day on, it struck me, we need to change this. We need young people to lead and to learn from people in these positions.
Main policy priorities: I’m running on four key issues I want to address. One is affordable housing, I want to build more affordable housing in East Palo Alto and streamline the process of the time it takes to build affordable housing in East Palo Alto.
The second is traffic mitigation. Regional development in our neighboring cities have impacted way too much our traffic situation in East Palo Alto, so I want to go ahead and address that by speaking to these neighborhoods and find ways to mediate future traffic conditions because more development is coming, so we need a plan to prepare for that.
The third is education enhancement. Our school system is not the best in our current state so I want to build an alliance with the Ravenswood School District and understand what their need is and what we as council members and citizens can do to help them reach their goals. We have a lot of kids leaving our school systems and joining other neighboring cities’ schools so we need to work to address that problem and bring kids back to get educated in our community.
Fourth is climate change. I’d say 60 percent of East Palo Alto is in a flood zone. How are we preparing to ensure that our community members’ houses aren’t flooded when these climate change issues happen? Gavin Newsom just announced by 2035 he wants to get rid of cars based with oil, so what are we as a community doing to help make that change?
How does your age factor into your candidacy for voters? My age is a benefit and I guess you can say it affects my campaign negatively. It’s positive because we need more young people in these positions. We need the energy. We need people who are actually gonna have initiative to create solutions. The hard part that comes with that is the lack of experience that comes with age, the older you are the more experienced you are with these different conversations, but I’ve done a pretty good job getting involved with the city since a young age. I’ve been working at a non-profit so I know the issues and solutions we can create. I’m currently a planning commissioner and that started when I was an undergrad. I understand the development that’s coming to East Palo Alto. I think people see age and feel people aren’t experienced but the reality is I am experienced, I do know what’s going on, I do understand what East Palo Alto needs. I am very connected with the community.
What are your thoughts on regulation of Silicon Valley & the tech industry’s impact on your community? The issue of what’s been going on is the lack of communication or initiative of East Palo Alto leaders to sit down and understand how these tech companies can offer benefits for our community. How we can negotiate in a manner that it’s beneficial to tech companies seeking to expand and our community at the same time. We need to have those conversations. We’re not having them, we’re letting tech companies come and do what they want for our city and that’s a push we should be doing. For example, the Amazon building, we could have negotiated better deals. The ball is in our court. We have the opportunity to say this is what we want, this is what we require, this is what we need, and if you meet all the things we want, feel free to develop or create in our community.
Tell us one of your favorite things about living in East Palo Alto. Our diversity. The community members, how united we are. Our sense of community, the fact that we’re so small and connected, that’s what makes East Palo Alto special.
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