This 25-Year-Old Congressional Candidate Didn't Win — But She Isn't Giving Up

Update: Erin Schrode fell short in her campaign to become the youngest woman to serve in Congress. With nearly 21,000 votes, Schrode came in third place in a four-way race in California's 2nd Congressional District.
This story was originally published on May 19, 2016.
Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
As it stands today, just 84 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are women. Zero are under age 30.

Erin Schrode wants to change that.

The 25-year-old Democrat is running in a district that stretches up the Northern California coast. If elected, Schrode would be the youngest person in all of Congress and the only twentysomething in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Schrode, an activist and speaker who has spearheaded her own nonprofits related to environmental issues and educational resources, faces a tough road to Washington.

She's challenging Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman, an incumbent who has major name recognition, a big fundraising advantage, and backing from the powerful state party. Schrode and Huffman are just two candidates in a four-way primary race (under California's unusual primary system, the top two candidates, regardless of party affiliation, will go head-to-head on the November ballot). And she says while she's gotten words of encouragement from mentors and friends, support from elected officials and political organizations has been hard to come by.

Schrode knows what's at stake in this year's high-profile presidential campaign — she sees this election as the most important in her "very long 25 years on Earth." But she wants young women to remember that who they elect to Congress — and other state and local offices — plays a big role in their lives, too. And she believes that after years of political gridlock, the country is ready for a new generation of lawmakers who are "more willing to work across party lines" and "not beholden to a party in the same ways.”

Refinery29 sat down with Schrode to talk about her campaign, the issues that matter to her, and why it's so important to vote. Read the edited interview below, and watch the full video interview on our Vote Your Values Facebook page.

Just 84 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are women. Zero are under age 30.

Why are you running?
"I am running because I believe in representative democracy. We are 51% female and 35% under age 30, and the fact that there has never been a woman under 30 elected, to me, is troublesome. The decisions being made today will disproportionately affect us. Yet we have no voice at that decision-making table."

What are some of those big issues impacting the lives of millennials and millennial women?
"Let’s talk about learning and the future of work. I graduated from university — NYU…almost three years ago. I felt the burden of student debt that is crippling an entire generation of people. How do we implement debt forgiveness programs? How do we lower those rates to benefit us, but also [to benefit] parents who are bearing those burdens?

What are some of the other issues you’re looking at in this campaign?
"For me, women’s rights. Paid leave — we are the only industrialized nation without paid leave programs. That’s [for] women and that’s also [for] men. That’s dealing with newborns and loved ones. Equal pay is [a] stepping stone toward that, toward closing that gap, and access to reproductive health care…Other issues for me...the future of work. How do we invest in programs to train people? When you graduate from college, do you have relevant skills? My parents were fed a lie — they won’t be able to retire at 65 — so that cycle of beginning, middle, and end of life just doesn’t exist anymore…How do you enable people to make those career pivots?"
Tell me about your decision to run for Congress.
"I gave a speech two months ago and the throughline was, If not Marin, where? If not Northern California, if not [the 2nd] District, where, as an incubator, as a catalyst [there is] so much good… And I walked off stage, and people said, 'How can we get you to run for Congress?' I had a week and a half between that day and the filing [deadline].

"I talked to a lot of people, I spent a lot of time calling those I respected…mentors, leaders, and expected them to smack me down to size, expected particularly my best friends to put me in my place… I don’t fit the mold of what I think of as a politician, but everybody said, ‘Do it. We need that voice in government — that is not represented.’ Most people wait until after having children to run for office, [or] they forgo having children. You need to do it now. My best friend, my conscience, the person who keeps my ego in check said, 'Yeah, there are plenty of reasons why you could wait, but why not run while you wait?'"

What’s the campaign experience been like?
"It is magical madness. It is so much more work than I ever could imagine. I don’t think that’s naïveté — I think it’s, you don’t understand until you’re there. Our district…stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. It’s a third of the California coast. It’s almost 800,000 people. It’s five and a half counties. So just, geographically, it’s huge and we are driving up and down the coast and we are there, boots on the ground…But what does it mean? It means meeting a lot of people. It means talking about the issues that matter. It means engaging to co-create policy solutions. It means fundraising. Let me tell you, it takes a lot more money to run a political campaign that I ever imagined."

I am going up against a candidate who had almost a half a million dollars sitting in a campaign account when we launched...

Erin Schrode, Democratic candidate for Congress
It’s a very expensive endeavor. Your most recent FEC filing, you reported raising a couple of thousand dollars. Your main rival, Democratic Congressman Jared Huffman, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Can you give us an update of how much you've raised now? And talk a little about what you’ve learned about campaign fundraising.
"That was in the first two days. We launched on March 29, so between March 29 and April 1, we raised a couple of thousand dollars. We are now just about to cross $50,000. We have received over 400 individual contributions, small dollar contributions. But if the Obama campaign proved something, it was that small, grassroots donations can fund a campaign.

"I am going up against an establishment candidate. I am going up against a candidate who had almost a half a million dollars sitting in a campaign account when we launched that he does not have to use, particularly in the lead-up to [the] June 7 primary. So, I think another piece of this campaign process has been a real learning experience, a real rude awakening about how much the deck is stacked against any challengers. But we’re not shying away. We’re not backing down in going up against elected [officials] who do not want to meet with us, against incumbents who will not acknowledge our candidacy, against donors who won’t even think about writing a check because this is a Dem on Dem race."
Who are some of those politicians and leaders who have refused to take your meetings?
"There have been no elected [officials] who have met with us on the record."

And you’ve been asking them?
"We’ve sent emails! We’ve called offices! I’m really grateful to a few city council people throughout our district who have taken meetings, who have taken the time, but they don’t want to ruffle feathers. If they come out in support of me, or are seen as somehow legitimizing my candidacy, it could pose a problem down the line if I’m not elected."

Have you gone to other Democratic groups that support women candidates?
"None of these organizations, even those that support female candidates, will support our campaign because it’s Dem on Dem. And I’m so proud to be a Democrat right now, where you see in the presidential race, two Democrats putting forth policies. I see that as pushing democracy forward. So I see that challenge of ideas, of energy, as positive in its nature. But so far, it’s been a lot of doors closing in our face, or not even willing to open."

It is magical madness. It is so much more work than I ever could imagine.

Erin Schrode, Democratic candidate for Congress
You use social media a lot in your campaign — you announced on Facebook Live, you’re very active — what have you learned about the power of social media as a political organizing tool?
"We’re breaking down those barriers between myself and all of you. Those walls, those filters, those boundaries. This is the world in which we exist. I am a digital native. So to use tools like Snapchat, like Twitter, like Instagram, like Facebook and Facebook Live is very second nature. People appreciate that. I’m entering our lives where we are. We can get involved in this two-way communication. For me, it’s incredible to be able to engage and respond with my constituents. And for people becoming active in politics all around the world."

One thing I think a lot of campaigns and advocates struggle with is how to help make that leap from retweeting and engaging or watching a Facebook Live feed, to voting, going out and canvassing, or doing other things that campaigns and issue advocacy groups need to win, to effect change.
"I’m the first one to remind myself — that 6 million views on Facebook content, 60,000 shares, probably doesn’t even mean 60 bucks. So, our real call to action to all of our digital audience is take this energy, harness this unbelievable digital power for real, tangible impact on the ground.

"We’re telling people to set an iCalendar reminder [to vote], remind yourself there. Use these technological tools to amplify, but don't forget that we live in the real world. It’s far too easy to hide behind a screen."

Our Vote Your Values poll found that 78% of women think this election will impact their lives, but a smaller percentage were definitely planning to vote. What can we do to get women to vote — why is it so important?
"You think that, My vote doesn’t matter. But guess what? Not voting is a vote. It’s a very active choice that you are making by not voting. I think when you show the impact of policy on day-to-day life, the ways in which these decisions are not just changing something far off, they’re changing you. Women: reproductive health, toxins, education, debt, all of these things that young women are feeling every day. You want to change that? You’ve got a really simple way to do that. That’s to register — in California the deadline is May 23 — and we’re going to do just as much in our countdown to May 23 as to June 7, because civic engagement is so important."
When you announced your campaign on Facebook, you said that you see this opportunity to “redefine civic engagement.” What does that new definition look like to you?
"It means every single one of us can take on issues in our own backyard. For me, I started my advocacy journey very early because of a personal impact. Because I found out that the ingredients I was using on my body at age 13 potentially were linked to cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm. I think people see civic engagement, see public service as a huge commitment, as something that they have to put so much time and energy into — that’s not the case. You can start at home, and when you start, when you do something, anything, that is empowering.

That can be scaled. That can be replicated. And that’s how you start a movement."

Editor's note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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