By Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber
Barack Obama, our community-organizer president, often talks about the need for change to come to Washington rather than from Washington, and the importance of bottom-up activism in keeping our political representatives on track. Indeed, history shows that lasting change is often built on grassroots foundations.
And millennial generation voters, 66% of whom voted for President Obama, represent an important aspect of that coming grassroots change. This generation, 95 million Americans born between 1978 and 2000, will be important both for its size - the group is larger than the 78 million Baby Boomers - and its political orientation - they are generally post-partisan and eschew the stale political fights of the past.
One of the first young Americans to bring the Millennial sensibility to Washington may come from California's 32nd Congressional District, where there will be a special election for the seat recently vacated by Labor Secretary-designate Hilda Solis. Democratic candidate Emanuel Pleitez is a 26-year-old who hopes to become the second member of his generation to serve in Congress. In many ways, Pleitez (pronounced PLAY-tez) represents a vivid template of the kind of leadership this new generation is poised in bring from America's neighborhoods to Washington.
Like many in his district, Pleitez is a Latino who has climbed the ladder of the American dream from its lowest rungs. His single mom, a cafeteria worker, immigrated from Mexico and struggled to raise her family on the east side of L.A. Before he reached the age of ten, Emanuel and his family had moved ten times, often finding shelter in back rooms or garages. And like millions before him, Pleitez seized the opportunities offered by education to improve his lot. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in El Sereno and went on to graduate from Stanford University.
Pleitez served on the staff of Losa Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and briefly worked on the Senate Democratic Steering and Coordination Committee. Then he moved to the private sector, working as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. This experience helped qualify him to serve on the Treasury Department Transition Team for the new Obama administration.
It's a varied and interesting background, once that equips Pleitez to be an energetic and informed advocate of progressive policies, especially regarding the economy. But what interests us most about Pleitez is his role as a harbinger of a coming generational shift, one of the first young Americans to bring the Millennial sensibility to Washington.
As we've discussed before, one of the most striking--and, we think, hopeful--characteristics of Millennial youth is their openness to people and perspectives of many kinds. Today's young people are fed up with the ideological battles in which the Baby Boomers have long been mired, and they're ready to reach across all kinds of boundaries--of age, class, race, gender, and party--in search of solutions to problems.
Pleitez exemplifies this pragmatic attitude. When we asked him in a recent conversation about how his time in the financial world had shaped his views on the current economic crisis, he stressed the need to break down the barriers separating Wall Street, Main Street, and leaders in government. "I was at Goldman till November 7th," Pleitez recalled. "I remember watching the Congressional hearings into the financial crisis with some of my colleagues there. It was sad to hear the reactions from my friends. They were laughing at the questions asked by some of the members of the Finance Committee, mocking them because they didn't understand the details of how the banking system works. Yes, we need members of Congress who have expertise in finance. That's one of the reasons I'm running. But there should also be a level of respect for people who give themselves to public service--not the disconnect that exists now."
We suggested that the gulf between Wall Street and Washington might be partly a function of the conservatism that prevails in the financial world. "Wall Street is not monolithic," Pleitez told us. "There's actually a lot that right and left can agree on when it comes to fixing our financial system. Right now, conservatives who work in banking are nervous because they hate it when the rules of their game are getting changed. Hey, I get that. If you don't have consistent rules that everybody understands, how can you stabilize the markets?
"But we're in a time when the old rules have stopped working. If we do nothing, and house foreclosure rates continue to rise, how can we even figure out what homes will be worth? And if we can't put a value on our most basic assets, what happens to market stability? That's why new rules are needed as soon as possible. And I think when you explain it this way, progressives and conservatives can begin to come together around solutions. President Obama's stimulus plan and, even more important, the plan he just announced for dealing with the foreclosure crisis are the start of this effort."
This open-minded approach served Pleitez well as part of the Obama transition team charged with reviewing the mission, policies, and programs of the Treasury Department. He helped to interview senior department officials and also met with representatives of some seventy outside organizations with strong views on Treasury policy--groups as varied as the ultra-conservative Cato Institute, the establishment Mortgage Bankers Association, and the Greenlining Institute, which is dedicated to economic empowerment of America's ethnic minority communities. Just being able to take in these diverse perspectives and emerge with a clear sense of priorities and policy direction--which Pleitez has been able to do--suggests some of the talent for bridge-building that characterizes the smartest members of the Millennial cohort.
"We're children of the Facebook age," Pleitez says, "comfortable with all the new tools for making connections with people, from email to text messaging to social networking. And we're using those tools to open up our eyes and to create links with people around the country and the world. Ethnically, I am a Latino, and I am proud and happy about that. But for our generation, that kind of identity doesn't create barriers. We're able to talk and work with people of every kind, which we need to do to solve the problems we face. This attitude is part of what I hope to bring to Congress."
Let's hope that over the next ten years, more Millennial politicians like Pleitez will take their place in the rising leadership of our nation, bringing a fresh perspective to Washington. They're an important part of the broad-based team America needs to build if the promise of an agenda of reform and renaissance is to become a reality.
Eric Greenberg sponsored a major research survey into the values and attitudes of the Millennial generation - www.gen-we.com. He and Karl Weber are authors of the book Generation We: How Millennial Youth Are Taking Over America and Changing Our World Forever.