Politics in Charlotte has an establishment. There’s a system. You pay your dues, attend the right events and work your way into the good graces of the powers that be. Then you wait your turn.
This system is starting to be turned on its head.
Though filing for the City Council races hasn’t officially begun, the Agenda has found six people under 40 who have already started their campaigns for a seat on the City Council. More could certainly launch campaigns over the summer. This compares with perhaps one or two per election cycle in previous years.
Should they sweep — which is highly unlikely but technically possible — the council would be completely remade with a Millennial majority.
All of the candidates face an uphill battle. Several of the younger candidates say the older generation is not yet willing to cede any power to younger people. That message of “wait your turn” is a fact of life.
But Millennials as a generation are getting older and are beginning to feel like they’re reading to take on leadership in Charlotte.
That perception is boosted by the city’s young professional renaissance. Charlotte is frequently named as one of the best cities for young people. Top employers, restaurants, retailers, churches, media organizations, nonprofits and brewers are all vying for a share of millennial wallets and hearts.
And the city as a whole is growing younger. The average age of a Charlottean is now 35 years old, with the 26 to 34 age group the largest demographic.
“The people moving into the city are not 60, 70 years old,” said Larken Egleston, who is running in District 1. “It’s absurd that all these things are being done for us, but not with us.”
National trends are in these younger candidates’ favor as well. The rancor and outcome of the 2016 election has pushed younger people into the political system across the country. In Charlotte, there’s also the civic debate spurred by the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott at the hands of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer.
Young Democrats in Charlotte have also been energized by the election of 31-year-0ld attorney Chaz Beasley to the N.C. House this past November.
All that has sped up the timelines of several candidates for City Council, who may have been thinking about running in another few years.
“So much about politics has been about old men, rich men, retired men controlling everything that goes on in our lives,” said Justin Harlow, who is running in District 2.
“Young professionals and younger folks are figuring out, you don’t have to be retired, you don’t have to have a boatload of cash, you just have to speak to the issues and galvanize support.”
Meet the Millennial candidates.
Dimple Ajmera, at-large, age 30. You’ve probably heard of Ajmera already. She was appointed to the City Council this winter to fill the Democratic District 5 seat of John Autry, who got voted in to the General Assembly. She became the youngest council member to date.
Parker Cains, at-large, age 32. Cains is running as a Republican and is making a push to appeal to independent voters who don’t like the direction the City Council is heading.
Larken Egleston, District 1, age 34. Egleston has made a deep dive into local affairs, serving on the Historic Landmarks Commission, the Charlotte International Cabinet and the board of the Plaza Midwood Neighborhood Association. The Democrat will challenge Patsy Kinsey, 74, the long-time councilwoman who briefly served as mayor.
Justin Harlow, District 2, age 28. The dentist is running as a Democrat to represent the wide district encompassing west and northwest Charlotte all the way up to Huntersville. He’s the president of the Biddleville/Smallwood community association.
Daniel Herrera, District 3, age 24. Herrera is a Charlotte School of Law student making his first foray into public office after having worked on Capitol Hill as an intern. Though as a Republican he’ll have a tough road getting elected in this heavily blue district, he says being young and Hispanic will help him represent the district that encompasses South End, Steele Creek and a large part of west Charlotte. It’s currently represented by LaWana Mayfield, 47.
Wil Russell, District 4, age 38. Russell, a Democrat, is the most experienced in campaigning among this group, having run for this seat representing the University City area in 2013 before losing in a run-off to current councilman and retired bank examiner Greg Phipps.
But will any of them actually get elected?
Some of these candidates face a tougher road than others.
Republican candidates, in general, have a difficult time getting elected to office in Charlotte outside of the few districts that draw from red areas in the southern part of the city.
And several of the Democratic candidates are challenging elected officials with tremendous name recognition and a lengthy civic resume.
“There is an established old guard who is not ready to cede power,” Russell said, though he puts a lot of the blame on the younger generation itself. He says it has not done a good job cultivating leaders. “There’s really been nobody in the pipeline.”
The 2017 election cycle is a testament that things are changing. And in municipal elections, you never know what could happen. These off-year elections generally only draw a tiny fraction of the electorate. A savvy candidate who can bring new voters to the polls could make a race closer than expected. Several of the millennial candidates cited this as a path to victory.
Don’t be surprised if at least one candidate doesn’t sneak onto the dais.
“The stars seem to be aligning right now,” Harlow said.