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Will young Pittsburgh-area Democrats rally behind Joe Biden’s reelection campaign?

A bag with a picture of Joe Biden wearing sunglasses
Gene J. Puskar
A bag with a picture of Joe Biden on it sits in the stands next to the stage while he spoke at a rally held at the Teamster Local 249 Hall in Pittsburgh Monday, April 29, 2019.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

Wondering how much work Joe Biden has to do if he wants to appeal to young voters this fall?

Consider this: When candidates seeking to lead the Young Democrats of Allegheny County — the party’s official countywide group for Dems under age 40 — were asked at a recent gathering whether they would vote for him this fall, a handful of them had a hard time giving a clear yes.

To be fair, the question was posed by a critic of Biden’s policy on the war in Gaza, who asked whether the hopefuls would back “Genocide Joe.” As one of the candidates who had to answer it, Lauren Williams, told me when she recounted the story, that sort of framing “doesn't leave a lot of room with the one minute you have to answer.”

But if this news depresses — or excites — you about Democratic prospects for November, consider this too: Williams is just one of 11 candidates seeking to lead YDAC as its president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. And that level of interest is arguably a win, no matter who members elect to lead the group next week.

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I don’t have the space to describe each candidates’ merits, and you probably don’t have the time. (One of the hopefuls themselves asked if I was calling because it was a “slow news week.”) But the race is yet another sign of a new generation coming into its own.

YDAC’s mission is to connect politically engaged voters with each other and with elected leaders. In the past, its members often endorsed local candidates only to see the much larger Allegheny County Democratic Committee go the other way. But the groups have been more in sync in recent cycles, as younger, more progressive leaders have begun making headway in local leadership.

“A lot of the pushing on the ACDC involved efforts to push people who were more progressive, and YDAC definitely played a part,” said vice president candidate Fred Coleman. “I think you are seeing a lot of interest in these [YDAC] offices because of the growing political capital that it has.”

Those who want to lead the group say that building on that growth requires addressing challenges that face the party as a whole.

Candidate for president Dylan Altemara, for one, has helped build up a party apparatus in Elizabeth Township, which can be hostile territory for Democrats. But he says often the progressive movement “doesn’t understand that there is a county beyond the city of Pittsburgh.” Altemara said that while many progressive ideas are popular in those areas, “It’s not the message, it’s the messenger. It’s about finding local talent who local voters know” and will trust.

And Altemara says the “question du jour” is “What influence can you have to make sure the concerns of the young Democratic base are conveyed” to leaders.

That question is especially vexing now, as the painful war in Gaza has crystallized many young voters’ misgivings about a political status quo they hoped Biden could do more to change. Housing costs are steep, for example, and the minimum wage hasn’t been raised since many Young Dems were in elementary school.

These gripes may be hard to understand, especially for Democrats who aren’t quite so young. Biden has invested more in causes such as student-debt relief and green technologies than any candidate ever has … and if he loses to Donald Trump, it’s not clear when another president will bother to try.

These kids don’t know how good they have it! They’ll end up with Donald Trump if they don’t quit their damn whining! Their music is too loud! 

Having asked several YDAC hopefuls to respond to such messaging, I can tell you it doesn’t work. Vice president candidate Cory Roma says the trick is not to lecture young voters but give them a place to be heard. That includes the people Roma himself has joined at local protests of the war in Gaza.

“The common image of the protests is video of hooded and masked people at the barricades,” said Roma. “But a lot of people I was there with are interested in making a difference. They don’t feel they have a way of getting involved.” YDAC has been a “proto-family” to him, and it could help “alleviate a lot of that anger [and] bring people into the fold.”

Several candidates said a “Vote blue, no matter who” approach wouldn’t be effective. “My job is to tell you that your rights are on the ballot,” said Williams. “And if we don't make a choice, people will stop listening to us.”

Some make a more direct argument. While he acknowledges the debate about Biden is “the elephant in the room,” vice president contender Grant Regan said that in his view “The most important letter in YDAC is ‘D.’ When we are looking at a true domestic threat like Trump, that's the line to me.”

Coleman agreed an undercurrent in discussions is, “How do you hold politicians’ feet to the fire? Do you say, ‘Listen to us, no matter what?’ Or 'We're going to support you, but we need some stuff from you?’”

But while political junkies focus on the presidential race — would you have read this far otherwise? — YDAC future leaders are already looking beyond and beneath it. A committed group of activists can have a huge impact in down-ballot state legislative races, or for judicial candidates, school board hopefuls, and municipal officials next year.

“Where YDAC shines is in those local races, and 2025 is right around the corner” said Regan. That means upping the group’s online presence — “We need to meet young people where they are” — and avoid fratricidal flights in the meantime: “When Democrats infight, we lose.”

The good news: No one expects the YDAC contest to be ugly. And if young voters decide that being active today could move the needle even further their way in the future? Maybe this fall won’t be so bad for a certain 81-year-old either.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.