Photo Courtesy of Ethan Sonneborn’s Facebook Page
Ethan Sonneborn, an eighth grade student at Mount Abraham Union Middle School, announced this month his campaign for a spot in Vermont’s 2018 gubernatorial race. Sonneborn, a Democrat, aims to inspire other young people to participate in politics at any level.
“We need to engage young people in the process,” Sonneborn said in an interview.
Vermont is one of the few states that does not place an age requirement on gubernatorial candidates. Vermont’s youngest governor was 34-year-old F. Rey Keyser, Jr., who was elected in 1960. Gubernatorial candidates are only required to have resided in Vermont for at least four years, a requirement that Sonneborn, a lifelong Vermonter, has already passed.
Sonneborn has been interested in politics and history for most of his life, after finding a photo of Robert F. Kennedy in an encyclopedia. He was just five years old. He even talked with his kindergarten teacher about becoming president someday.
His interest in politics turned into action in middle school, when he led a peaceful protest against a school ban on talking during his lunch periods. He and his friends held signs and refused to eat until administrators lifted the ban.
Unlike most 13-year-olds, Sonneborn has developed nuanced positions on many of the issues currently plaguing both Vermont and the nation at large. He supports marijuana legalization and further protections for LGBT individuals. His first priority if elected would be to reform Vermont Health Connect, Vermont’s health insurance marketplace, in order to ensure that more Vermonters have access to affordable healthcare.
“These issues affect the entire nation, but I believe Vermont could lead the way in solving them,” Sonneborn said.
Sonneborn is most passionate about combatting apathy in politics. His mission to engage young people in the political process could prove to be challenging, as historically young people are less likely to participate in politics than their older counterparts. The General Social Survey conducted in 2014 revealed that millennials are less likely to vote than other generations, despite engaging in other forms of political action, as reported by The Washington Post.
“I really see a lot of pessimism in America right now. I’ve always thought America needs a fresh vision,” Sonneborn said.
Sonneborn has gotten many of his friends involved in his campaign as well. He launched his campaign a couple of weeks before the new school year began, and on his first day back, many of his friends asked to work on his campaign.
“My formal senior staff is almost entirely comprised of eighth graders. I think this helps — I was looking for people who cared about our state and wanted to help it through this time,” Sonneborn said.
Despite the challenges that will come with running a gubernatorial campaign and attending the eighth grade, Sonneborn is confident in his abilities to effect change in Vermont politics while still fulfilling his duties as a student.
“So far I’ve been able to balance both [the campaign and school], but I think running for governor is also a valuable educational experience and my parents agree,” Sonneborn said.
If Sonneborn wins the Democratic primary, he will most likely face incumbent Republican Phil Scott, who has not yet announced his reelection campaign but is expected to do so later this year. Democrat James Ehlers, the Executive Director of fishing and clean water advocacy organization Lake Champlain International, also announced a bid for governor in July 2017.
Although his main focus is to win the general election in 2018, for now, Sonneborn hopes the campaign itself will help interest more young people in the political process.
“We really need people engaged in the political process. I really appreciate it when people tweet at the campaign. It’s really important that we get people engaged,” Sonneborn said.