Cole Young remembers where he was when the 2016 presidential election went down. He was working a late shift at an Old Navy in the San Francisco East Bay. He and his coworkers watched Donald Trump topple states like dominoes.
He remembers a sense of unreality as midnight rolled around and Trump won the next four years of United States leadership. To him, the entirety of Trump’s candidacy had been a crass joke. He didn’t think people would actually vote for him.
“I’ve never really felt that way in my whole life,” he says.
That’s when the way he saw politics changed.
Eight months later, Young moved to Minnesota to be closer to family, settling in Eden Prairie. He’s now 35, and he’s taking a two-month leave of absence from his job at Nordstrom so he can run for office.
Young has his eye on Eden Prairie Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen’s seat. But before he can tangle with Paulsen, he has to take on Democratic candidate Dean Phillips, the heir to the Phillips Distilling fortune, and known better for possessing affable charm than any bold liberal stances.
Phillips’ campaign is powered by hundreds of thousands of dollars and substantial name recognition. Young’s is powered by his retail money and his lanky legs taking him from house to house. His full-time job until the election is knocking on doors and explaining to people who he is, and that he’s actually not too young to run for office.
“I think he’s already come to the conclusion that he’s won,” Young says of Phillips. He thinks that makes Phillips complacent, wobbly on the issues, and unable to represent the middle class because he’s never been a part of it.
He’s “rich and bored,” Young says. “I’m not going to vote for Dean just because he’s a Democrat.”
Young’s platform is full of big, concrete ideas, which he says he’s “shameless” about promoting. He wants to make college free for Minnesota students, specifically by legalizing recreational cannabis and powering higher education with those tax dollars.
“Colorado brought in over $200 million in cannabis taxes last year alone,” he says. He thinks Minnesota can do even better.
He also wants to expand Medicare to cover people starting at age 41, possibly by reducing military spending by about 30 or 40 percent. For those 40 and under, he wants a more competitive health care market – companies competing for precious Millennial dollars with deals and low rates, the way car insurance companies do.
All of that, along with a new minimum wage of $20 an hour, is supposed to make a more accessible world for Millennials and the middle class, both of which are underrepresented in government.
When it comes to social issues, Young takes what he believes is a common Millennial standpoint: let people do their thing.
“I think any sort of law that goes against people being themselves is ridiculous… I don’t think anybody who’s being who they are, whether the faith that they practice, the gender that they identify with, the people they decide to have a romantic relationship with – it’s not hurting anybody,” he says. “It boggles my mind that there are still people in this country that not only disagree with people who don’t live the same sort of lifestyle they do, but will actually vote to prohibit them from being who they are.”
It’s an ambitious platform, but Young has always been full of big ideas. He created his own clothing line for a few years. He also created a social network, which he calls “Linkedin before Linkedin existed,” specifically for creative professionals. He once considered running for mayor when he lived in Upstate New York, campaigning on creating more opportunities to entice bright young people to stay and invest in their city. He probably would have, if he hadn’t gotten a job opportunity closer to New York City.
All of these ventures were longshots, and running for Paulsen’s seat is no different. Despite his lofty goals, Young has no illusions about his chances. He knows he’s probably not going to win. But even if he doesn’t, he hopes he can pave the way for other young candidates who may be daunted by a political landscape fraught with private wealth and corporate influence.
“You might not win the first time you run, but you’ll give other people ideas.”
After that, he’s thinking of starting a nonprofit with a friend. A sort of “AARP for young people,” supporting them through health care and college expenses, and helping them find the right career paths.
And then? There’s always 2020.