How are millennials coping with a Trump presidency? They're running for public office.

How are millennials coping with a Trump presidency? They're running for public office.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.  The day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, Ravi Gupta faced a barrage of painful questions from students at the charter school he'd founded. 

Would people come to the school to deport them? Could the Jim Crow laws return? Might LGBTQ kids be forced into conversion therapy to "cure" them?

"It broke my heart," Gupta, 33, told a sea of hundreds in a windowless room at the Music City Center. 

"I left that room, went into a classroom and just started crying," he said. "I didn't have any answers."

That anguish gave rise to what became the Arena Summit, a weekend conference of mainly young people looking to get into politics — either for themselves or to support fresh-faced candidates — in the coming age of Trump.

Listeners take in a speech by 'Art of the Deal' author Tony Schwartz.
Source: Celeste Katz/Mic

"We're here because there are no easy answers," Gupta told listeners at the hastily organized, no-frills summit. Instead, attendees had gathered around the principle of running grueling electoral campaigns. 

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley boosted morale with an inspirational call to action ("This is your time"), and breakout sessions drilled down on more practical aims ("Building a public narrative" and "Making an impact while holding a day job," for example).

Although attendance wasn't limited by political creed, the anti-Trump sentiment was palpable after an election in which millennials overwhelmingly supported Democrat Hillary Clinton (but apparently didn't vote in much larger numbers than in 2012).

Tony Schwartz, who in his 30's ghost-wrote the president-elect's self-celebratory 1987 book, Art of the Deal, but now regrets it, spoke to "what we can do together to help the planet survive over the next four years, because make no mistake about it: It's about our stepping up."

Speaker Michael Tubbs had already stepped up. The 26-year-old mayor-elect of Stockton, California, told the crowd his duty to serve outweighed the personal costs. Tubbs's campaign opponent mocked his youth and publicly aired a past entanglement with the law.

"If you're going to step into the arena, it is not for the faint of heart," Tubbs said. 

"Despite opposition research, despite people making up stuff about you, despite people telling the truth about you, the question is really, 'If you don't run and you have the skills, the passion and the ability, what happens to the people that you claim to care about?'"

Tubbs, a Stanford graduate who will become the first black mayor of his hometown, was in some ways a reflection of those who came to Nashville to hear him speak.

The Arena Summit drew a racially diverse and highly pedigreed crowd. Chatter at an evening reception had a corporate networking vibe, including reunion-like reminiscences of working on Capitol Hill or overseas with an non-profit. 

Gupta, one of many organizers who pulled together the program sponsored by Democracy Builders, a non-profit that seeks to "engage disenfranchised Americans" in civic life, is a good example. 

Most recently the co-founder and CEO of a network of Southern charter schools, Gupta graduated from Yale Law School. He was an aide to Obama campaign mastermind David Axelrod and an assistant to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. The native Staten Islander made the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in 2012 and knows how to work a room.

So what's Gupta running for? He hasn't decided yet, he says — but something's in the cards when he returns to New York, whether it's getting his own name on the ballot or putting his experience to work for a candidate he trusts.


Source: YouTube

"This is not a vanity exercise; this is an exercise in pragmatic politics. We're not protesting at this event. We're getting down to how the system works and how you can move it forward," he said in an interview during the summit. 

"As much as progressives like me believe that we need to protect folks from some of the policies that are going to be implemented [under Trump], we also need to offer an affirmative vision of the future."

That brought up one of the many issues that might face prospective young candidates: the distance between their roots and the hard-charging, successful lives they've built in places like New York, L.A., or D.C. 

One woman, who asked that her name not be used, confided that she and her family had a serious discussion while she was still in high school about whether her political future in her home state of Kentucky would be imperiled if she took her college degree elsewhere. She ended up going to Yale and settling in Washington. Now 38, she says she's now more likely to work to support progressive candidates back home than become one herself.

Going home isn't a bad bet, according to Jason Kander, an Army veteran who was the youngest statewide elected official in the U.S. when he became Missouri secretary of state at 32 — and went on to narrowly lose his 2016 challenge to incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt in a race where he defended his position on gun control in a widely noted commercial.

Kander told the Arena Summit crowd they should consider going home to pursue public service, even if they felt distanced from the place where they grew up. 

"Don't decide that you and that place don't get along anymore," he urged. "Change where you're from."

It's a message that resonated with summit attendees like Lauren Underwood, who earned degrees in nursing and public health at the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University. She's now based in Washington, where she works for the Department of Health and Human Services. But, at 30, she hasn't forgotten her hometown outside Chicago — or her youthful internship in the office of then-Sen. Barack Obama.

Source: YouTube

While she hasn't decided where or at what level she'll pursue office, when Underwood heard the story of the woman who considered her political future while picking a college, she reacted this way: 

My mother always likes to tell me that you need to blossom where you're planted, that there is always opportunities to, one, plant your roots and, two, to blossom and bloom. And so I would argue to the young lady from Kentucky [that] it doesn't matter where she goes to school: She can make a difference in that community wherever she's at. If she wants to come home, tell the story of going away, learning, growing, contributing and bringing those skills and lessons learned back home.

Underwood was in the minority: Of the hundreds who attended the Arena Summit, fewer than half expressed active interest in seeking office.

Of those who do run, contested elections may prove disappointing, as they have for other millennial candidates going up against better-known, better-funded incumbents. 

But that sort of misses the point of the Nashville meeting. 

The whole event, after all, took its name from a famed Theodore Roosevelt speech, where he said: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena ... who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming."

Underscoring the urgency of the times as the clock ticks down on President Barack Obama's tenure in office, breaks at the summit were pointedly counted not in minutes, but in seconds. 

Gupta told the crowd the time had come to realize they themselves, to quote the outgoing president, are the ones they've been waiting for. 

"That is scary, but it's also empowering for all of us here," he said.

"We are going to enter the arena. We must enter the arena."