The man who wants to change the Democratic Party showed up to an interview at a D.C. coffee shop without an aide by his side—but with a Fitbit on his wrist. It’s an unusual look for a Senate candidate, though less so for a 31-year-old one.
P.G. Sittenfeld is a long shot to win the Democratic Senate primary in Ohio. He’s running against a former governor, Ted Strickland, who is practically a rock star (albeit a septuagenarian one) to the Midwest state’s blue-collar voters. Sittenfeld is also up against the powers that be in his party: Both the Ohio Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have endorsed Strickland, who they believe has the best chance to defeat Republican Sen. Rob Portman.
And yet, Sittenfeld—who looks young enough to still get carded in bars—has defied calls to end his campaign. Instead, the Cincinnati city councilman has vowed to show that Democratic voters prefer a fresh face who better reflects an increasingly young, diverse, and urban party.
Sittenfeld traveled to Washington because, like a lot of people his age, he was attending a friend’s wedding over the weekend. In an interview, he articulated his view about the changing nature of Democratic politics, why black lives matter, and how his decision not to smoke marijuana as a youth might haunt him.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What’s the difference between a millennial Democrat and the rest of the Democratic Party?
Our generation grew up as digital natives. So the use of technology and use of these platforms and a sense that disruption is a helpful thing and innovation—that’s normal, that’s regular.
I think there’s also a sense that diversity is normal and a good thing, and that life is boring and talent is lacking if it’s all the same people around us.
There are certain battles that we have put to bed. On balance … if you've got a bunch of Republicans my age, they’d be like, “Yes, climate change is real, and two people who love each other deserve to be married.”
I don’t think millennials are “grudgy.” It’s more like, what can we make happen? I think so much of people’s frustration with politics is it feels so grudge-oriented and grudge-motivated, and that’s not how things get done.
My friends and I joke that members of our generation can’t get into politics because of embarrassing pictures we published on Facebook when we were young. You took office in Cincinnati when you were 27. Was that ever a problem?
Did I act like a college student in college? Yes. I don’t think any voter would ever mind that. Actually, on the contrary, I think voters want leaders and elected officials and candidates who embrace being a real person and aren’t afraid to be authentic.
So you never felt the need to take down a picture?
Look, did I remove a picture? [laughs] Probably. But, no, I am who I am. And I want the voters to accept me on those terms.
Do you have a mortgage?
I don’t, no. My fiancée and I rent an apartment.
You’ve given speeches explaining the need to state that black lives matter. Has the Democratic Party done a good job responding to that movement?
It’s especially important for white candidates and white elected leaders to acknowledge that institutional racism is a real thing. When black lives matter, all lives will matter, right?
My focus, and I want this to be the focus of the Democratic Party, is to be serious about policies that address the Black Lives Matter movement.
But does the Democratic Party understand why saying “black lives matter” is important?
I think a lot do, and more need to.
You support legalizing marijuana. Should the rest of the Democratic Party follow suit?
To me, what it reflects is, we have a choice between sticking with a clearly broken status quo or having enough courage to act when something isn’t working … and say, "Let’s try something different; let’s try something better."
I know this sounds politician-y, and like a total square, but I’ve actually never smoked marijuana.
I haven’t. Although I sometimes joke—I feel like where politics is headed, instead of candidates who have [smoked] lying and saying they haven’t, candidates that haven’t are going to need to fib that they have.
Because if you haven’t smoked marijuana, people’s question will be, “Why not?”
In the polls, Strickland actually leads Portman. How can you make the case that you’re the stronger candidate in a general election?
I think the profile of my candidacy is the right one to beat Rob Portman. If you put me next to Rob Portman, I look like the new leader, and Rob looks like the guy who’s been around Washington too long and has cast too many out-of-touch votes. I believe that Rob is eager to run against Ted Strickland because they want to spin the same narrative against him they used in 2010 [when Strickland ran for reelection as governor and lost].
If Democrats want to win this seat, I think I’m the right person to do it.
People talked about Barack Obama and Marco Rubio being youthful, but they were in their 40s. You’re 31. Do some people tell you that you’re too young?
The reality is people want to use age against both me and Ted. And I would just say, let’s let this race be about the merit of our ideas and passion of our convictions. ... I think I could count on less than one hand the number of times people have said you’re too young to do this job.
I do personally care about government looking like what the country looks like. I absolutely want there to be more women in elected office, I want there to be more minorities in office. I also think more young people in elected office wouldn’t be bad. We’re part of the largest generation in American history, and not a single one of us has a seat at the table in the United States Senate.
Since the spring, the word in Washington has been that your candidacy was about growing your profile and that you’d eventually exit before the primary. But it sounds as if you’re in this race for the long haul.
I don’t know whose word that was. My word was always we are running, we’re running hard, we’re absolutely running to win, and I know we can.
Most things worth doing aren’t easy. This one won’t be.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.