These Teens Are Running For Governor in Kansas and Vermont

0922_Ethan_Sonneborn
Ethan Sonneborn (left) stands with his advisors, Riley Wells (center) and Alex Yaggy (right) before a Bernie Sanders rally in Middlebury, Vermont over Labor Day weekend. Jenna Sonneborn

Ethan Sonneborn is a 13-year-old political savant in the making—and a Democratic candidate for Vermont’s governor seat in 2018.

Sonneborn traces his political passion to elementary school, when he picked up the Encyclopedia of American History at a town-wide yard-sale in Bristol, Vermont. A photo of Robert Kennedy caught his attention, and Sonneborn began researching the famed presidential candidate. His main takeaway: a deep admiration for Kennedy’s “ability to build coalitions and bring people together.”

Now, Sonneborn is building a coalition of his own—a network of history-making teenage gubernatorial candidates who hope to engage young people in politics by showing them that teenagers can challenge politicians in the two states without an age minimum for their highest office: Vermont and Kansas.

Running for Office? It's a 'Dream Childhood'

Sonneborn can chatter endlessly about reforming his state’s health care system, his defense of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and criticism of President Donald Trump. He voluntarily explains his pro-choice candidacy, noting that his political beliefs are formed by his personal ideology, not Democratic party identity.

Sonneborn almost perfectly channels the ideals and speaking manner of famed Vermonter Bernie Sanders, someone he admits is a role model. “I think politics today is overwhelmingly controlled by old, white people, especially men,” Sonneborn told Newsweek. “One of—if not the most major goals of this campaign—is to send a message about engaging people in politics, particularly young people.”

Sonneborn created a campaign team by mixing adults with eighth-grade peers—his campaign manager, anticipated chief-of-staff, communication director and chief strategist are all his age. The rest of his team is a combination of “trusted confidants” and students who are politically-interested at Mt. Abraham Union Middle School.

While some candidates tout a voting record, Ethan will proudly inform people of his homework record—he’s completed every assignment on time while effectively campaigning. The political life is time-consuming, Ethan admits, but it’s his “dream childhood” to run for office as a kid.

Vermont Governor Phil Scott, a Republican, is eligible to seek re-election in 2018. On the Democrat side, several liberals are poised to rival Scott, or his Republican challenger, Keith Stern. As an incumbent, Scott holds strong odds in remaining in his seat—incumbent governors win about 72 percent of the time.

“I recognize that if you’re a 13-year-old running for office, you don’t start out with great odds,” Sonneborn told Newsweek. “But I’d rather lose a fight with a lot of visibility than lose a fight quietly.”

1,525 Miles Away: Football, Homework and a Governor Race

Sonneborn's first endorsement was granted to Democrat Jack Bergeson, a 16-year-old gubernatorial candidate in Wichita, Kansas.

The two began talking on the phone when their local newspapers featured their campaigns and they realized they weren't alone in the ambition to be an underage governor. Sonneborn says they have a lot in common and expects they'll meet one day, but for now, there are no immediate plans to campaign or fundraise together. While 1,525 miles separate them, a love for Sanders unites the Democratic campaigns. 

Bergeson fields interviews from his car on his high school lunch break—he’s taking algebra, AP U.S. History and philosophy classes, among others. The school bell rings around 3:30 p.m., and Bergeson goes straight to football practice, where he plays defensive tackle. In the summer, he works at his parent’s local restaurant, Fizz Burgers and Bottles. It would be a good space for an election night event, he noted.

Bergeson and his 17-year-old running mate, Alexander Cline, are classmates at The Independent School in Wichita. They'll campaign on raising the minimum wage, legalizing medical marijuana and upholding the state’s concealed carry law—the last of which allows for guns on college campuses and has sparked Democratic criticism in the state.

“I’m not stuck with whatever the party says,” Bergeson told Newsweek. “Show me the facts, and I’ll follow the facts. Show me both sides of the coin. I’ll listen to both sides wholeheartedly.”

'If we get younger Republicans involved, that’s a good thing'

A nonpartisan spirit led Bergeson to encourage a rival candidate—17-year-old Republican Tyler Ruzich—to enter the race for Kansas’ governor seat, which is crowded with multiple candidates from each party.

Bergeson and Ruzich said if teenagers watch other young people jump into politics, they will hopefully get excited about seeing themselves represented and ask questions about the process—starting a chain reaction of youth involvement. 

“If we get younger Republicans involved, that’s a good thing,” Bergeson said. “I’m not just here to push for policy; I’m here to push for civil engagement. We’ve got to get our generation involved.”

It's a crowded race in Kansas—Secretary of State Kris Kobach and lieutenant governor Jeff Colyer are vying for the seat that will be vacated by Governor Sam Brownback in 2018. Kansas Democrats are also eager to enter the race given Brownback's low approval ratings.

Kelly Arnold, the 5-year chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said he is excited to see the teenagers politically involved, and he doesn’t believe the gubernatorial age exception is accidental. From his memory, the two young candidates are making history in Kansas.

“We have it right letting anybody serve,” Arnold said. “It makes us a unique state, and I support that. Young people getting a lot more involved is positive.”

0922_Tyler_Ruzich 16-year-old Republican Tyler Ruzich competes on his debate team and felt that he “had a little bit of time in his schedule” to run for governor in 2018. Tyler Ruzich

Ruzich, an Overland Park native, considers himself a moderate Republican. His political experience stems from time with the Shawnee Mission North debate team and involvement with his municipal teenage council. He works at a grocery store after school and felt that he “had a little bit of time in his schedule” to run for governor.

Bergeson and Ruzich have a unique perspective on the politics of Brownback—a conservative whose aggressive tax cuts left the state with budget shortfalls and insufficient education funds. They were both in school during his policy implementations, and Ruzich criticizes the Brownback team for “cutting taxes recklessly” and vows to put more money into education.

“We’ve seen how demoralizing it can be for students,” Ruzich said. “There have been schools closed right across the street from me because of budget shortfalls. I’ve seen it first-hand... Changes have to be made.”

If You're Our Age, 'You've Got to Do It'

The Kansas and Vermont elections take place in November 2018. Each candidate will need to file paperwork next year and raise money for their candidacy. But none of them seem too concerned about that part—there’s something bigger than political office at stake for the trio.

“I think lot of people consider Vermont and Kansas flyover states,” Ruzich said. “But if the opportunity is there, and you’re our age, then you’ve got to do it. It’s the only way we are going to be able to help address this crisis of political apathy among our generation.”

Until then there are other matters to consider. Homecoming is coming up for the high school students, after all.

“I’ll have to get up the courage to ask who I’m considering,” Ruzich said with a laugh. “I guess if I’m brave enough to run for governor, I should certainly be brave enough to ask someone to Homecoming.”

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