At age 29, P.G. Sittenfeld is already serving his second term on the Cincinnati City Council. He finished first in the 2013 City Council election and currently chairs the Council’s Education and Entrepreneurship Committee. He is one of the youngest City Council members in the city’s history.
Before running for office, Sittenfeld served as the Assistant Director of the Community Learning Center Institute and worked to turn Cincinnati schools into after-hours community centers offering health, education and other opportunities for surrounding neighborhoods. He is also a member of the NewDEAL, a growing network of “pro-growth progressive” state and local leaders.
Sittenfeld argues that millennials have the potential to transform politics – if they choose to run. This interview has been edited for length.
R3.0: What do millennials bring to the table that’s lacking right now?
Sittenfeld: One, I think our generation is less ideological. We’re more interested in measurable outcomes. How can we test solutions that work? That’s not to say that every millennial agrees on everything because of course we don’t, but I think that we are more collaborative by nature. I would posit that if you put forty 30-year-olds in a room, they might come out with a better compromise product than compared to our current Congress.
Two, our fluency and native ability with technology is huge. It’s easy to see how technology is transforming people’s lives around us. As one example, I think Google is going to have a self-driven car before any policymaking body is ready to put parameters around that and integrate it into society. We need people who “get” technology and who work with technology. It’s a native skill set of our generation.
I also think our level of social tolerance and yearning for social justice is high in an admirable way. For example, it’s hard to find someone below age 30 who doesn’t support marriage equality, whether they’re from a red state or a blue state.
R3.0: You recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post urging more millennials to consider running for political office. Why are millennials reluctant to run?
Sittenfeld: In some cases they haven’t thought of it. We might need our “JFK moment” where an inspirational leader challenges more of us to go into public service.
And if we have thought of it, we might not be sure how you go about it. I had to run a pretty sophisticated, expensive city-wide campaign, and I learned a lot through the process. But I think a lot of folks – even if the desire is there – aren’t exactly sure how to do it.
Third, some people might think they need to “ask permission” to get involved in public service or elected office. They think to themselves that people in elected office are supposed to have graying hair when I think youthful energy and creativity are needed badly right now.
R3.0: Is the prospect of having to fundraise also a barrier?
Sittenfeld: I lament, with everyone else, the level of money in politics today. It’s obviously proved an intractable problem, and the Supreme Court does not seem to be helping.
But the one thing I would say is that in terms of young people starting out, you don’t have to run for Congress as your first race. It’s great if you want to or if you’re in a position to run a viable campaign, but you could also be a local school board member or your neighborhood community council president.
There are points of entry where you can be involved in politics, even at the most local level. You can make a difference and then you can rise and broaden your impact from there.
R3.0: What’s the millennial agenda?
Sittenfeld: The agenda isn’t necessarily that different from all of the things everyone cares about. I think it’s a different way of going about things in the millennial generation.
When I ran for city council for the first time, my agenda was appealing to people whether they were 75 or 25. How can we ensure that everyone has access to outstanding educational opportunities? How can we ensure that quality health care is available to everybody? How can we address the threat of climate change? How can we get a handle on rising income equality?
R3.0: What prompted you to run for public office? Why do you think being an elected official is the most effective way to bring about the change that you want to see?
Sittenfeld: I honestly felt that Cincinnati is a city that’s going in the right direction and where you could have an immediate impact at a young age. When I came back, I got involved in education reform work, developing Cincinnati’s public schools and round-the-clock hub community centers. I was working in neighborhoods across the city at a very granular level and got to know the challenges and opportunities in specific neighborhoods. I care a lot about my hometown and thought I could be useful to it.
I’m very sympathetic to the stigma that politics has, and a handful of bad apples has contributed to that over time. But I still think government as the expression of our values and the allocation of resources can make a huge impact. I’m one of nine people who decide what’s going to happen with a $350 million budget. There are so many places where we have the ability to make positive change that are inherently appealing to me.
R3.0: Who are your political heroes?
Sittenfeld: Reading about the Founding Fathers is really inspirational – they were such a unique generation of people. But closer to home, in my lifetime, there have been two Democratic Presidents that I’ve found inspiring in very different ways: President Clinton and President Obama. And then a little closer to home still, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio manages to be progressive, bold and commonsensical all at the same time.
R3.0: What’s your advice to fellow millennials who might consider following in your footsteps?
Sittenfeld: First and foremost, have a compelling platform and agenda that you believe in and meets the needs of the moment.
On the political side, build a network in a cross-generational way. One of the things that might not be intuitive is that often, the people who are the most excited about and are the biggest sponsors of young people running for office are the older generation who see the future in these young candidates. It’s a practical step to cultivate relationships with a generation or two above you for their expertise and resources.
The right personality with the right vision can attract a lot of support, including resources, even if they didn’t start out with that network.
R3.0: What’s the next step for you?
Sittenfeld: I love serving on City Council. I love every day of City Hall.
Within a cycle or two, I will probably take a bold crack where I think I can be useful – to be determined what that will be.
Follow P.G. Sittenfeld: @PGSittenfeld @NewDEALLeaders. This interview was conducted by Anne Kim, Editor of Republic 3.0. Follow: @Anne_S_Kim @Republic3_0