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Ricky Gill/Handout photo

The generation that will pay

Millennials | Millennials, frustrated with the nation's debt and spending but juggling babies and law school, are taking action: They're running for Congress

Issue: "Border bandits," Dec. 3, 2011

Ricky Gill wasn't like other 17-year-olds. In 2004, instead of goofing around after school, he was the one public high school student in California the governor selected to serve on the state board of education. Now, as a 24-year-old, he is running for Congress-while going to law school. The minimum age to be a member of the House is 25; Gill, a Republican, will turn 25 in May 2012, one month before the primary.

"A lot of people think I'm young now, and I wouldn't contest that, but I was really young then," he said, thinking of his teenage term on the school board. The years between that stint of public service and congressional candidacy have been filled with work on his family's vineyard, college at Princeton University, a summer on Capitol Hill, studies at the University of California at Berkeley law school, and serving as legal counsel for the Oakland A's. Gill is the youngest of three brothers in a family of first-generation immigrants. His parents are physicians, his father from Uganda, his mother from India. Both came to the United States as adults.

The average age in Congress is 57. But a striking number of millennials-the generation aged roughly between 20 and 30 years old-have filed to run for House seats in 2012. A rash of long-shot candidates pop up every election cycle, but these youngsters-who are filing early and forgoing conventional paths to Congress like time in a state legislature, or a few more years between college graduation and a House campaign-may actually win, given the record frustration voters are voicing toward incumbents. The young candidates would form a second wave of generational newcomers following the young Republicans elected in 2010, about a half dozen members now in their early thirties.

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Gill is challenging three-term Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney, 60, in California's newly drawn 9th Congressional District, a competitive seat representing the mostly agricultural San Joaquin Valley that The Cook Political Report says leans Democratic.

Thanks to redistricting, McNerney found himself living outside the district (he currently serves in the state's 11th Congressional District), while Gill has grown up in it. (McNerney says he plans to move to the district.) Gill also has raised $756,000, according to the Federal Election Commission, $115,000 more than McNerney-a potentially major indicator of the candidate's viability. As a result, the National Republican Congressional Committee has named him in its "Young Guns" program for up-and-coming candidates who have met certain benchmarks-and its chairman, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, reportedly emails Gill every day to check on the race.

Millennials aren't very good at turning out for elections, but they backed President Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 margin in the 2008 election. Their political angst has found its most recently visible expression in the Occupy Wall Street protests, yet the majority of 20-somethings who have filed to run for Congress so far are Republicans.

The candidates I interviewed said they didn't feel that their generation's interests had representation in Congress. The "youth unemployment" rate (16- to 24-year-olds) is 18.1 percent, according to the Department of Labor, and the share of young people who are employed is at its lowest level on record. The millennial generation expects to bear the brunt of entitlement cuts, and very few expect to receive Social Security benefits at all. Twenty-somethings face a difficult credit market, where securing a mortgage is not a given, and they usually emerge from college with significant debt as college tuition has soared.

The anecdotal stories from young congressional candidates parallel recent polling data from Generation Opportunity (see sidebar below), an organization that studies millennials and the economy. Sixty-nine percent of millennials said political leaders do not reflect the interests of young Americans. Sixty-six percent are "deeply concerned" about the national debt, and 76 percent said they would like to see a reduction in federal spending. (That, however, contrasts with a study on millennials that the Pew Research Center conducted this year that showed only 35 percent of millennials favored smaller government.) The researchers also found 69 percent of millennials prefer cutting federal spending to raising taxes to balance the budget.

Paul Conway, former chief of staff at the Labor Department during the Bush administration, heads up Generation Opportunity, and he analyzed some of the results of the poll. "We have a generation now who has gone through a tremendous amount," he said, citing 9/11, two wars, and economic collapse. "They see less in their wallet, they see their own friends unemployed, and feel they can't make payments into their future."

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