What The Youngest Delegate At The DNC Wants You To Know About Teens & Politics

Photographed by Nathaniel Welch.
Clarissa Rodriguez, 17, is the youngest delegate at the DNC.
Technically, Clarissa Rodriguez is representing her home state of Texas at the Democratic National Convention this week.

But as the youngest delegate at the entire DNC, the 17-year-old high school student is carrying the torch for millions of up-and-coming voters.
"It feels crazy," Rodriguez told Refinery29. "But it’s nice because part of me feels like I represent those who aren’t old enough to be here."

Rodriguez, a Bernie Sanders supporter who turns 18 just days before the November election, was featured on the main stage of the Wells Fargo Center Monday night, when she joined the DNC's oldest delegate, Ruby Gilliam, in leading the Pledge of Allegiance.

The rising senior took a break from the frenzy on the convention floor Monday to talk to Refinery29 about what it's like to be the youngest delegate, the issues that matter to her, and how she's going to vote November 8.

Why did you want to be a delegate?
"The Bernie campaign really made me want to be a part of everything. It was like a siren went off. They were fighting for this. These things that [I] believe in, there’s this whole mess of people who want to fight for these. And I was like, I want to fight for them, too! Now! There’s momentum.

"I canvassed for the Sanders campaign, and the guy who coordinated it [said], ‘Hey, you want to be a delegate, too?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t even know what that means!’ But after a while, I was like, ‘Maybe I should run.’ And it turns out that my community very much trusts a 17-year-old who studies and does nothing but read. They trusted me enough to give me this spot. And now I’m here to represent all of them!"

What are the most important issues to you in this election?
"They’ve shifted and changed, but [one of] the top three has to be campaign finance reform. That’s how you fix everything, basically. You ask yourself why there are so many issues in politics, and why you can’t do certain things. It’s because there’s crooked money. Somewhere, somehow money gets involved and it twists up the politics and completely paralyzes it…

"Second, is health care, universal health care. I admittedly would not have been here if not for Obamacare, but Obamacare does have its faults. My mom lost her job, so she didn’t have any insurance, and she went months without it. And through Obamacare, we were able to get coverage and get me back to better health."
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I want us to come back strong next election. Not necessarily with Bernie, but with a progressive candidate who can match up to the values and the authenticity Bernie presented this election.

Clarissa Rodriguez, Texas delegate for Bernie Sanders

What do people get wrong about high school students in politics?

"What they get wrong absolutely is that we don’t know anything. Or that we can’t learn without having experiences. It’s really twisted because you’ll get that elderly supporter who says, ‘You know, I have children your age. You don’t understand. You’re too young.’ You get that repeatedly. And it’s very annoying, and it’s frustrating."

Why is it so important that young people get engaged in politics, even if they aren’t old enough to vote yet?

"At least for me, it was to show up. To show up and show the older generations that they are coming. That we’re not waiting until we’re 45 to actually feel something about politics. It’s important because it ends up shaping how you grow up, how you age. If you fight for universal health care when you’re 15, even if you’re 45 when universal health care passes, you and your kids now have universal health care. It directly affects us when we grow up."

You gave the pledge at the convention where Hillary is going to become the nominee. You’re a Bernie Sanders supporter. How do you feel about party unity?
"I think it’s good if it’s done right. I don’t appreciate being fear-mongered into supporting [Clinton]. It doesn’t make me want to run out in the streets and say, 'Hillary 2016!' It’s really belittling and it doesn’t help the unity, this whole get in line, hurry up, Bernie’s out, get over it [line].

Will you vote for Hillary?
"I’m about 90% sure I will vote for Hillary, but I can tell you for sure that I will be holding my nose. At the end of the day, she’s still the [same] candidate who was running a couple of months ago. She fails to support the ideals I do."

Where do you want the Bernie Sanders movement to go from here?
“I want us to come back strong next election. Not necessarily with Bernie, but with a progressive candidate who can match up to the values and the authenticity Bernie presented this election. I honestly think that’s what drove the whole campaign. The authenticity, the feelings, and real emotion. I want to see that in a new candidate, and I want to see a new Democratic Party.”
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