The best way to activate young voters is through a bigger focus on issues rather than candidates, believes Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who returned to Iowa this week to speak at a millennial voters event in Des Moines. The former Iowa governor specifically pointed to water quality topics as a key motivator, and said the Democratic Party must adjust their outreach tactics for young people.
“I think it’s important for us to talk about the significant progressive agenda that could be advanced by young people, by millennials,” Vilsack told Starting Line at the “Political Party” event in Des Moines on Friday night. “If there’s any generation that should be concerned about our natural resources and our water here in Iowa, it’s the millennials. They’ll have to deal with the consequences of us not dealing with it aggressively and progressively.”
To capitalize on that potential activism, however, Democrats can’t rely on the same methods they’ve used in the past, Vilsack noted. The county party structure can be a poor means of entry into the process for young people, who could be attracted by more fun and social events.
“I love the people who go to central committee meetings, and god bless them, they volunteer and work hard, but the reality is that’s not the way young people today want to spend their time,” Vilsack said. “There’s a lot of things they can do with their time, we’re competing for their time. We’ve got to figure out ways in which we can make it meaningful for them so they’re willing to invest their time.”
The solution, Vilsack believes, is a party that better utilizes social media – you don’t have to sit through dull, procedural meetings to network with other activists anymore. Outreach needs to be more diverse as well, including talking with younger people in the rural areas as well as the cities. And leadership needs to actively encourage participation in the process, whether it be finding offices for young people to run for or offering important roles in issue movements.
“I know I was elected governor because we had a 21st Century Club, which was emerging leaders,” Vilsack commented.
In front of a crowd of about 150 young people at the millennial voter event, Vilsack pitched a message focused on water quality solutions.
“You can lead this change. Here’s what we need to do – in the water area, there are two ways to do it to improve water quality. You can either regulate it or you can incentive it. In this state it’s important to incentive it,” Vilsack told them.
He also warned what inaction could cost Iowa, which lags behind neighboring states in addressing the issue.
“Minnesota and Wisconsin are already doing this,” Vilsack said. “The states to the south of us, because of the oil spill, are going to get hundreds of millions of dollars to improve water quality in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The only state that isn’t active in this space today is the state of Iowa. It is unacceptable … If we don’t do our job, Minnesota and Wisconsin will basically say to any economic development project, ‘Don’t go to Iowa, you will be paying for dirty water. Come to our state because we have clean water.’ It will cost us jobs. It will cost us revenue. It will cost us the ability to attract more and more young people.”
But any of that will only happen if younger people actually get involved in a sustained push on the issue, Vilsack insisted.
“If you’re willing to do this, ask, demand for change,” Vilsack told the audience of young voters, most of whom weren’t old enough to vote for his last reelection in 2002.
Tom Vilsack, a 65-year-old former governor who has spent the past eight years in Washington D.C., might not be the first person that comes to mind when you think of “millennial engagement.” But it’s very useful for past and current party leaders, who have a wealth of connections and institutional knowledge, to reach out to and try to build up a younger generation of leaders. Vilsack plans on returning to Iowa after the Obama Administration, but Iowa Democrats can’t rely on their former leaders alone to fix a struggling state party. Vilsack and others’ efforts this week were a good first step in facilitating the creation of a new generation of progressive leaders in Iowa.
by Pat Rynard