California millennials are diving into politics in the age of Trump

There’s a small catch.
There’s a small catch.
Image: Reuters/Max Whittaker
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Sacramento, California

Welcome to the heart of the resistance.

Much as Texas was the opposition’s stomping ground during Barack Obama’s presidency, California—a longtime bastion of liberal Democratic politics—is now a center of resistance to Donald Trump’s administration.

Earlier this month, US attorney General Jeff Sessions paid Sacramento a visit to announce a federal lawsuit targeting California’s “sanctuary laws,” enacted in recent months to protect undocumented immigrants. Then Trump visited California for the first time since the 2016 presidential election to inspect border wall prototypes in San Diego and attend a Republican fundraiser in Beverly Hills.

Sacramento, the Golden State’s capital, has become arguably the most politically influential city outside of Washington, representing a state with the sixth largest economy in the world. In the process, the city often derided as little more than a pit stop between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, is becoming something of a destination for progressive millennials, who bear little resemblance to the stereotype of a generation that doesn’t care about politics.

“I’ve seen a lot more people get engaged out of a sense of fear, anger, and disbelief,” says 33-year-old Kelly Fong Rivas. “My generation of young people are frustrated with the narrative that they can’t do anything about it, or they feel that generations before them have decided their fate for them, or made it difficult for them to start their own career paths.”

Fong Rivas is the chief of staff to Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat elected in December 2016. She says she has seen more young people get involved since the presidential election. Women in an organization she helped found, the Fem Dems, held a “therapeutic” community meeting after the 2016 results; hundreds of people and another new progressive group attended.

Millennial activism

Liberal millennial activism started to blossom before Trump moved into the White House. According to Pew Research Center, in January 2018, 62 percent of millennial registered voters in the U.S. said they preferred Democratic Congressional candidates for their districts, an uptick since 2006.  More than previous generations, this generation of people born between 1983 and 2000 shares strong opinions on racial and immigration discrimination. 

In California, millennial liberalism is even more pronounced. Climate change is a strong concern, as well, with seven in ten California millennials considering global warming a serious threat to the state’s economy and quality of life, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The age group is more likely to support California setting its own climate policies, separate from the federal government.

In 2013, 27-year-old Matt Hamlett moved from Long Beach, California, to have a direct impact on state politics. And after scoring a full-time position in the Capitol, he has no plans to leave.

In college, Hamlett was a political science major but had his sights elsewhere. He took an internship at Morgan Stanley during undergrad and says he had the potential to make a lot of money. But something nagged at him. “I guess there’s a way you could spin that to say I’m helping people. I’m helping people plan for retirement, save up for college, et cetera. But…to me, government is very focused on finding solutions for the greater good, which I think is appealing.”

So he applied for the California State University of Sacramento’s Assembly Fellowship program, an 11-month immersion period in the offices of elected representatives. After the program ended, he stayed on as an aide and was eventually promoted to legislative director under Assemblymember Eloise Reyes, a Democrat who represents areas in San Bernardino County. Hamlett advises Reyes before key votes, detailing how a decision might impact her constituents and the state.

The capitol’s pace and Hamlett’s direct involvement with policy implementation feels like a constant adrenaline rush, he says. “I have always been a competitor. With the mix of politics and policy that happens in legislative houses, it gives you a very similar rush to a sports feel.”

For love, not money

California employs hundreds of thousands of government positions and more are opening every day; comprising 23.7 percent of California’s state workforce, the massive Baby Boomer retirement wave (the Silver Tsunami) is already underway. Politics aside, government jobs are aplenty in Sacramento especially, with competitive benefits packages and achievable work-life balance. Indeed, variety is not the issue. For some, it isn’t money either.

To work in politics, Andrew Kehoe, 34, left a cushy corporate gig at Black & Decker, where he was well-compensated and swiftly promoted. “It wasn’t what I wanted out of a career,” he says. “It took me a long time to figure that out. When you’re in a career, it becomes comfortable, you’re good at it, you get promoted, you’re doing well. You think, ‘OK this is what a career is supposed to look like.’ But more and more…the ultimate end result of everything that I’m doing is a stock price.”

In May of 2016, he started work at the mayor’s office, where he helps runs a workforce development program for at-risk teens, called Thousand Strong. The goal is to place 1,000 students into year-long, paid internships to learn valuable job skills. He makes roughly half of what he did at Black & Decker. (City employees in Sacramento make an average salary of $48,630; state workers make $65,726.)

Most people tell you, ‘You don’t go into public service because you want to be rich.’ And that is a very realistic consequence of giving up a career at a place like B&D,” he tells Quartz. “I’m definitely making a lot less than I used to, but that being said, I would gladly sacrifice all that again to know that helping the mayor get elected will have a lasting impact on the city. That’s something you can’t put a price on.”

As it turns out, more millennials investing in local passions and politics is exactly what both major parties want, at least this year, with midterm elections looming. California has 9.4 million millennials, and though voter turnout is historically low among young people between presidential elections, forecasters envision a shift in 2018.

In Sacramento especially, where government work is part of the fabric of everyday life, getting paid to make a difference is becoming some young people’s dream job—and that could very well impact the polls. “It doesn’t matter what the message is; it doesn’t matter what the group is. We are open and welcome to all of it,” says Kelly Fong Rivas.

How’s that for millennial entitlement?