Sam Cao, 17, at left, seen with Sam Lawrence, 19, at right. The two teenaged Sams are running as Democrats for seats in the Ohio House. Source: Sam Lawrence.

BY: JAKE ZUCKERMAN Ohio Capital Journal 

Sam Cao worked out a plan with his principal and superintendent. They had to figure out how Cao could potentially balance constituent work in the Ohio House of Representatives with classwork at Mason High School.

At Miami University, Sam Lawrence mulled a similar plan for his upcoming sophomore year. Ohio University’s Rhyan Goodman is likely doing the same for his junior year.

The three Democrats would be quite young for elected office. Cao is 17 but turns 18 before Election Day, which allows him to run; Lawrence is 19; Goodman was 19 when he announced his run in February.

If elected, they could shape state policy on everything from Ohio’s $74 billion biennial budget, civil and criminal justice, women’s rights, gun policy and countless others. All three are running in districts where Republicans have recently won with commanding margins, leaving them with uphill paths to office.

They can serve in wars and vote. They can’t lawfully buy a drink. And they don’t think their age should preclude them from public office.

“The one thing I’d like to point out is it’s not no experience; it’s different experience,” Lawrence said.

“I would like to ask every one of our legislators if they were attending school while all these terrible school shootings are happening. They were not in school when we had these high-powered assault weapons that could mow down tens of children at a time. Those people don’t have those life experiences.”

Some current incumbents started their terms just a few years older. Sen. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, started in the House in 2018 at 23 years old. Rep. Jena Powell, R-Arcanum, first won in 2018 at 24. Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Twp., won office in 2020 at 25. Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, won in 2018 at 26.

Several (older) Democrats asked about the youthful insurgents rebuffed concerns of a lack of life or work experience from the candidates. They also rejected the trend as any signs of a party unable to attract more established candidates. Instead, they characterized it as a reflection of members of a new generation who are aghast at increasingly extreme legislation coming from the Statehouse and inspired enough to seek to affect change on their own.

“They’re going to be limited based on their life experiences, but at the same time, there is something romantic about it,” said Dennis Willard, a Democratic political consultant.

“In a sane world, this might seem insane. But were not living in a sane world with the Ohio Legislature. I know who I’d vote for.”

There’s some historical precedent too. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the dean of Ohio’s struggling Democratic Party, won his first state House race at 21 in 1974. In 2000, 18-year-old Derrick Seaver won a seat as a Democrat (he switched parties a few years later).

In an interview, Seaver, now 40 and the director of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, expressed ambivalence about teenagers running for office. Youth has its perks — young people can be listeners and learners who bring new perspectives to older and pastier general assemblies. Plus, the media attention they attract can make the difference in tough races.

However, they’re less situated to understand the nuances or interconnectedness of public policy, he said. Plus, if they lose an election, they don’t have a college degree or developed work experience to fall back on.

“I will say that since that time, and I don’t want this to come across as discouraging, but certainly I feel that maybe I should have waited until I was older,” he said.

Sam Cao

Ohio’s new 56th House District contains swaths of Warren County including the cities of Lebanon and Mason. More than 62% of its voters are Republican, according to Dave’s Redistricting App.

The incumbent, Rep. Paul Zeltwanger, was among the first Republicans to openly embrace conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 and later joined in a quixotic and failed gambit to impeach Gov. Mike DeWine. Constitutional term limits preclude him from seeking reelection.

Cao grew frustrated when COVID-19 grew so prevalent in the county that his high school closed its doors when it ran out of healthy substitute teachers. He tried to contact Zeltwanger, to no avail. Then he tried to contact the Democrat running for the seat, only to learn no such person exists. He credits his AP Government teacher with encouraging him to take a shot for himself.

To prepare, he’s looking to history. For one, there are his role models — Brown, the U.S. Senator; Robert Kennedy, the liberal icon and former U.S. Attorney General; and William Proxmire, another U.S. Senator who famously replaced the demagogic Sen. Joe McCarthy and declared his predecessor a “disgrace to Wisconsin, to the Senate, and to America.”

Cao has also been seeking guidance from the last four Democrats who tried and failed to win the seat.

“You know what you’re entering, kid?” he said, relaying their advice.

“We call this the arena for a reason. You’re a minnow. And sharks come in. These legislators at the Statehouse, they’re not playing with you. They could eat you up.”

His path to the general election ballot is no guarantee — he’s facing Joy Bennett, a freelance writer, in the looming Aug. 2 primary.

In an interview, he boiled his policy goals down to three items. For one, he wants to vote against abortion restrictions and gun rights expansions, which are likely to come in the GOP-dominated legislature. For two, he wants to improve the state’s infrastructure — one example being a lack of roads leading to his own high school, the largest in the state, causing regular traffic jams. Third, he wants to support legislation introduced by Sen. Tina Maharath (another young and Asian-American Democratic lawmaker) to develop curriculum teaching Asian-American history in school classrooms.

“Look beyond our age,” Cao said. “I know our age is like, the wow factor or the pizazz factor about who we are as candidates, but I want you to look at the policies. I want you to look at what values we stand for.”

 Sam Lawrence, at left, and Sam Cao at right. Source: Sam Lawrence.

Sam Lawrence

In Hamilton County, Lawrence is running against Rep. Sara Carruthers, a two-term incumbent Republican. It’s a similarly tough district for Democrats — more than 60% of its voters are registered Republicans, according to Dave’s Redistricting App.

His goals in office include protecting abortion access for women, legalizing and taxing marijuana for recreational use, bringing intrastate train access to Ohio, and expanding clean energy generation like wind and solar in Ohio.

He said a House full of only 19-year-olds would likely destroy the state. But having a few of them around has its value — who better to represent the interests of young Ohioans? Who better to understand the realities of seeking student loans in an inflationary economy? Or evaluating recently passed legislation that allows teachers to carry arms in Ohio, which he called “incredibly unpopular” among young people.

He considers former presidential candidate and current U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg a role model. He has knocked on doors for House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Columbus, and volunteered for Congressman Tim Ryan’s U.S. Senate Campaign as well.

“Something everyone should know about us: We are taking this extremely seriously,” he said. “There is a reason that this Democratic process is in place. There is a reason that, by law, you are allowed to run at my age. There is a reason that people have won at my age. I think we should test that theory.”

Rhyan Goodman

Of the three teenagers, Goodman has the best shot at winning as far as the raw demographics go. His Athens County district splits 52-45 for Republicans.

He’ll face Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, a successful fundraiser and former member of House leadership seeking his fourth term in office. Edwards has won in a landslide every election since 2016.

Goodman doesn’t have any campaign website that could be located. He did not respond to calls or text messages seeking an interview.

According to The Athens News, he registered to run in February at 19 years old using his college dormitory as his residence.

His nascent political career has already met scandal. In April, he resigned from Ohio University’s student senate before facing an impeachment trial. According to The New Political, a student publication, Goodman was accused of coordinating an effort to remove former Treasurer Simar Kalkat from her position. He allegedly encouraged student senators to accuse Kalkat of intimidation.

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.
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