While student political attention is currently focused on Georgetown University Student Association elections, D.C. mayoral candidates competing in the April 1 Democratic primary are trying just as hard to engage young voters.
In formal and informal debates since the Jan. 1 deadline to enroll in the primary, candidates have discussed government transparency, transportation and job creation as three areas that will affect the lives of college students and recent graduates in the District.
In the 2012 presidential election, voters aged 18 to 29 made up 19 percent of the vote, according to Politico, and the youth vote is even more essential in the District.
Candidates, including incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray, are pushing their own visions for the transformation of D.C. into what many call a “world-class city” among the ranks of New York or London.
“Economic development is continuing across this city, along with our investments in affordable housing and infrastructure. I think everyone in this race would agree we’re better off than we were four years ago,” Gray said at a mayoral debate last month.
With just over 30 percent of District residents between the ages of 18 and 34 — a percentage that is on the rise as D.C. continues to attract young professionals to technological and startup industries — the youth vote will be crucial to the April primary and general election Nov. 4.
Candidates challenging Gray say that access to those opportunities, while plentiful, will hinge on how the local government chooses to include young people in the political process.
“Cities are the energy hubs for new jobs, new opportunities, and it’s very likely that most college graduates are going to participate in that development here in D.C. If you either work, live or play in cities, how they’re governed has a huge impact on the type of place they become,” Councilman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) told The Hoya.
This influx of young professionals, however, must be met with adjustments from the local government to incorporate these new individuals into the local workforce.
“We’re expecting 200,000 more residents by 2040, and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a mayor who understands how to make sure the city is ready for it from a budgetary standpoint, from a jobs standpoint and from an infrastructure standpoint,” said Bo Shuff, campaign manager for Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).
Former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis was quick to point to her experience in local government and continued focus on issues that affect young people — including access to healthcare — as reasons why she is the right person to lead the District.
“I’ve fought for issues all my life that matter to students — good-paying jobs, access to healthcare and health services and equality and inclusion for all people — and throughout my career, I have always had students and young professionals involved in the work that I do,” Lewis said.
With the current Democratic primary shadowed by an ongoing ethics investigation into campaign finance violations during Gray’s 2010 campaign, Gray’s challengers have been quick to point to the need for a leader that young people can trust.
“I think young people are tired of business as usual. They’re tired of seeing politics as a tainted game with money scandals always constantly hovering over the city,” candidate and local restaurateur Andy Shallal said.
Shuff touted Bowser’s role in creating a Board of Ethics and Government Accountability in November 2011 to hold city officials responsible if found guilty on corruption charges or other ethics violations.
“Muriel introduced, passed and then enacted the bill that created the Board of Ethics. She saw what many younger people saw over the last seven years on the council with their behavior and decided she was going to do something about it,” Shuff said.
Improvement of the District’s transportation system is another platform that candidates think appeals specifically to young voters. Wells emphasized his push for a streetcar that would connect Georgetown to the rest of the city.
“The current candidates for mayor voted to end the streetcar for D.C.; I saved it. Running a streetcar to Georgetown and all the way down to the east side of the city really is a way to connect Georgetown and the university to the rest of the city,” Wells said.
Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), whose area of representation includes the university, noted that he would use his position as mayor to move forward plans for a Metro stop in the Georgetown neighborhood.
“Georgetown needs to have a Metro stop after the next round of building. Metro needs to continue to expand, and we have plans to build another 100 miles of Metro throughout the region. There will be more inner-city lines and more lines in the suburban communities,” Evans said during a December debate in Georgetown.
This field of candidates recognizes the crucial role that D.C. students and young professionals will have in the city’s future. According to Wells — though ultimately no candidate will completely rid the local government of its reputation for corruption — young people shouldn’t be discouraged from engaging in local politics.
“Young people have every reason to be disillusioned — look no further than D.C. government. It’s one of the most corrupt elected governments in the country right now. But while they have every reason to be disillusioned, they have every reason to believe they can help change it,” Wells said.
Mayoral candidate and Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) could not be reached for comment.