Nate Smith-Tyge (@smith-tyge)
In most regards Ethan Petzold is a pretty typical newly minted high school graduate. He hangs out with his friends, goes to concerts, and gets in arguments with parents – the normal teenager stuff. But Ethan is unlike most of his fellow teenagers in that he does all of this while being more politically involved than just about anyone I know. And I know a lot of politically involved people.
This activism has always made him unique but a few weekends ago it also made him a historic figure in Michigan politics. Ethan was elected to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia as a Bernie Sanders delegate from the 11tth Congressional District. At the age of 18, Ethan will be headed to the DNC as the youngest ever voting delegate from Michigan.
I recently sat down with Ethan to discuss his historic win at the 11th District delegate selection convention and what drew him into politics.
FtM: So, Ethan, let’s start by talking about your election as a DNC delegate for Sanders. When did you decide to run and what drew you into the race?
EP: For as long as I can remember, I was interested in the United States Presidents and in elementary school I remember watching the party conventions on TV. I'll never forget watching President Obama give his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and dreaming of being at a Democratic convention one day. President Obama inspired me to take my interest in Presidents and turn that into an interest in politics.
After my involvement as a Democratic Party activist for four years I knew that people were going to begin filing to run to be delegates at the National Convention. At first I thought I would be a long shot because of my age and the competition I expected to be running against, but then I realized that young Democrats needed a voice at this year’s convention. I knew that my years as an activist had provided me with a platform to mount a real campaign for this position and I'd already established trust with Democrats in my area and across the state. In January I decided to start saving money to go and I read Michigan's Delegate Selection Plan. In the following months, I filed for the position and talked with former Delegates to help me devise a winning strategy. Once I talked to everybody I felt I needed to, had a thorough understanding of the process, and devised a plan on how to win, I publicly began campaigning for the position.
FtM: You beat out some pretty serious competition – how did you engineer your impressive victory?
EP: I strongly believe that I couldn't have mounted a successful campaign if it weren't for my involvement in local Democratic clubs and organizations, and my work on political campaigns. In a sense, the groundwork for my victory was established long before I ever considered running for this position. If you don't work hard and build relationships with fellow activists, you'll have very few people excited to vote for you at party elections like this one.
When I did decide to run, I treated it like any other campaign. I talked with people who had done this before, developed a strategy, and then I asked Democratic activists and friends to come out to the convention and vote for me. I knew that I wasn't going to win without asking people to support me and continually reminding them of when the district convention was. This included phone calls, making sure to attend Democratic club meetings outside of my community, and making sure likely attendees knew I was running and who I was. There were some people, like Democratic activist Geri Kilsdonk, who reached out to tons of Democrats and asked them to vote for me as well. I won because I treated it like I treat campaigns when some of my friends are on the ballot for public office. We organize, reach out to voters, and do everything we can to pull off a win.
FtM: As far as I can tell, you have been a Bernie supporter from the start. We’ve heard a lot about the appeal Bernie has to the “younger voters” can you explain this Sanders youth appeal better for us older folks? Is this what made you a Bernie supporter?
EP: You're right, Bernie does appeal to younger voters. In fact, there are people that I went to school with at Salem High School that never took an interest in politics before but became motivated by Bernie Sanders. Progressive young people like myself want somebody who tells the truth and brings attention to the important, sometimes overlooked, issues our country faces and comes up with bold, ambitious, progressive solutions for those problems. Bernie Sanders isn't afraid to call a spade a spade and fight for solutions.
Take a problem like the rising cost of college. For years, politicians have neglected college affordability but Bernie wasn't afraid to make it a centerpiece of his campaign and call for a bold solution to the problem. For years we've settled for establishment politics and establishment economics, and young people are tired of that. They want somebody who shoots for the stars and sees an America beyond its current limitations. A visionary leader who has fought for social and economic justice for years, not just when it was the best position to take politically. In 2008 President Obama campaigned on "Change we can believe in" and responded to cynicism with saying, "Yes we can." I believe that young people want a Democratic Party that still says, "Yes we can" instead of a party that says, "We believe in that, but we just can't do that now...it's not the right time."
FtM: Let’s go back a little further, what went wrong in your childhood that made you so interested in politics at an early age (haha)?
EP: Haha. Being a kid who knew all of the Presidents birthdays but hated things like video games, I was always a little odd. While it's hard for me to pinpoint exactly why I took an interest in politics so young, I think it was because I always wanted to do something that was larger than myself and I always admired our country's leaders. My childhood heroes were all Presidents because I believed them to be men with mostly humble beginnings and all the flaws that come with being human yet still had to courage to run for office and eventually lead our nation through both difficult and prosperous times.
In 3rd grade I'd tell everybody that I was going to be President someday because I admired them and would often see myself in certain Presidents' character traits, beliefs, struggles, and preferences. In my childhood mind, I could be President because all of these people could do it and I believed I could overcome any obstacle that stood in my way of making a difference in the lives of people who needed help. However, when I look back at this period in my life I doubt many people believed I could accomplish much because I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, I had an eye-tracking problem, I could barely read when I was 7 years old, and I was consistently below grade level in Math. My teachers weren't sure a traditional school would be able to give me the help I needed and sending me to a school specializing in children with special needs was considered. A lot of people were just hoping I'd be able to graduate high school. However, in my heart I believed I could overcome these obstacles and I looked to the Presidents as people I could identify with. For example, when I was being tutored in reading and would cry myself to sleep because I couldn't read as well as my classmates, I would keep trying because I was inspired President Lincoln who taught himself how to read.
That's a very long winded answer to your question, but in short, I became interested in politics at a young age due to my interest in Presidents. I believed that I could make a difference in this world through public service and when I faced obstacles I identified with our nation's leaders and used them as inspirations to keep going and never give up.
FtM: You have a great passion for some big issues, tell us about the roots of your passion on these issues.
EP: My passion for the issues I care a great deal about are shaped by my Christian faith. My faith guides every aspect of my life and that includes my political activism. For example, when we talk about issues like immigration policy, the refugee crisis, criminal justice reform, poverty, and equal opportunity among other things, I see it through the lens of the Bible. I see these issues not as numbers on a spreadsheet but issues that impact people who are made in the image of God, people I'm supposed to treat the way I'd like to treated, and supposed to love the same way Jesus loves.
In my actions and words I try my best to reflect Jesus Christ and that means being compassionate, it means showing grace, welcoming the stranger, and caring for marginalized groups. I believe that my deep passion for service and helping make our world a better place are gifts from God. It's what I'm called to do.
FtM: Let’s talk a bit more about your faith. You’re a deeply religious person and even more passionate about your faith than politics. I think many people would assume a person with your evangelical faith would be a conservative, how do you manage being a progressive person of faith?
EP: People often ask me how I can be a Christian and a Progressive Democrat. Even more questions tend to arise when I talk about how my faith shapes my political views. I believe in investing in social programs to help the poor, giving opportunity to those without, ending racial injustice, protecting the environment, and making sure all people, including LGBT people, are included in the social, political, and economic life of the United States. God calls us to be good stewards of His creation, to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, to care for the disadvantaged, and Jesus says the world will know we're His followers because of our love. To me, my political views fall in line with my religious convictions--in fact, I would have a much harder time belonging to a party that wants to deny help to refugees and promotes policies that break up the families of undocumented immigrants, when the Bible clearly says to welcome the stranger; and I would have a much harder time supporting a party that cuts the social safety net and education when Bible talks so much about helping those in need. We cannot expect people to "pull themselves up from their bootstraps" if we've taken away their proverbial "bootstraps" altogether! The Republican Party touts "family values" but refuses to allow new parents paid time off and lets thousands of orphans go without a loving family because they're opposed to gay and lesbian couples adopting. The policies of the Republican Party and the "you're on your own" ideology of its leaders are outrageous.
In Michigan this "you're on your own" ideology has been manifested in bills ,like one recently passed by the House Criminal Justice committee, that would essentially punish homelessness, giving a $100 fine to beggars because they deem it "aggressive panhandling."
These outrageous views are exemplified in the Republican Party's standard barrier, Donald Trump, who says his favorite Bible verse is "an eye for an eye" completely ignoring that Jesus reversed that way of thinking in Matthew 5:38-48, a man whose words aren't "...helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" but instead are words of hate, divisiveness, and used to tear others down time after time; a narcissist who exalts himself about all else; a man who's words about women are completely out of line saying things like "That must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees" and "Women, you have to treat them like s***" demonstrating that he sees women as sex objects, not people; a man who would dishonor prisoners of war like Sen. John McCain saying "I like people who weren't captured"; a man who mocks the disabled; a man who rejects immigrants and refugees despite the Bible's clear commands of welcoming the foreigner; a man who would commit war crimes, killing civilians; and a man who demonizes groups of people that are made in the image of God.
The actions and leaders of the Republican Party don't appeal to me and I don't understand why they appeal to so many evangelical Christians. It's much easier for me, as a person of faith, to be a Democrat than it would be for me to be a member of the party of Donald Trump.
FtM: How can Democrats and liberals do a better job of sharing our values, which as you say have much in common with the teachings of Jesus, with people of faith that are suspect of our party?
EP: I believe that we can reach out to people of faith by contrasting our views with the views of the Republican Party. In the previous question I outlined some progressive issues that can be presented in light of scripture and some conservative views that seem to fly in the face of scripture. The Democratic Party has to do a better job at showing people of faith that Christian values and Democratic Party values aren't opposites.
Democrats and Liberals could do a much better job with messaging and speaking to their audience. For example, many people of faith are strongly against abortion and one of the prime reasons they vote Republican is because many Democrats would describe themselves as pro-choice. I would suggest that when Democrats talk with people of faith about issues like abortion, they approach it differently. When abortion comes up in personal conversations I will express my belief that both sides of issue usually want to reduce the number of abortions but they have different approaches. Republicans enact abortion restrictions that aren't proven to reduce the number of abortions and in fact, make women who seek abortions less safe. Democrats believe at getting to the root of the problem which is unplanned pregnancies. Age and socioeconomic status are big factors in women making the choice of getting an abortion. By making birth control affordable and accessible and making sure programs like WIC are preserved, teaching comprehensive sexual education, and making the adoption process easier we can reduce abortion more effectively.
By talking about abortion in that way, I find common ground with the person I'm talking to and make the case that fewer abortions would occur if we voted for Democrats. Bernie Sanders' opponent Hillary Clinton once said, "I have met thousands and thousands of pro-choice men and women. I have never met anyone who is pro-abortion." Messaging is everything!
FtM: So, who do you have a tougher time debating: religious conservatives about politics or agnostic progressives about religion and faith?
EP: I have a much harder time debating religious conservatives. It's harder because when I get into conversations with agnostic progressives about religion they often bring up the fact that they've felt judged by so-called "Christians" and talk about how they've seen Christians who don't actually follow the teachings of Jesus. It's easy for me to talk about God's love and grace, and the fact that we are flawed human beings who fall short of God's glory and have no right to judge other people. Generally, I can talk about my faith to people who don't believe the same thing that I do, and it's often very respectful. Almost all arguments about religion and faith I feel like I can settle in a reasonable manner. I can leave these conversations believing the person I was talking to was wrong but still respect them, and most of the time, an agnostic progressive can have a conversation with me and still be fine with me personally.
Religious Conservatives often like to debate me assuming that it's our job to be the world's morality police and we should correct people who don't follow the Bible's teachings. I always think of 1 Corinthians 5:12 when the Apostle Paul says, "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?" And I think about how Jesus hung out with the people religious leaders of the time wouldn't even go near. Jesus welcomes all and many religious conservatives fail to realize that we can't expect people who aren't followers of Christ to live their life according to scripture. We all fall short of living a sinless life but following the rules to the best we can doesn't come from trying really hard, it comes from falling in love with God.
I guess the difference is when debating agnostic progressives they are fine with me as a person because I acknowledge some of their issues with so-called "Christians" and they don't believe I'm personally like that. In other words, it's not personal. Whereas religious conservatives tend to get a little bit more personal in my experience because it's usually a conversation around personal morality.
Overall though, I can have positive conversations with anyone. That's largely because I try to make sure I don't ruin relationships with people over disagreements. I actually think I can learn a lot from people I disagree with.
FtM: Getting back to the nitty-gritty of politics. What was your first campaign volunteering experience like – did it take much convincing of the candidate or staffers that you were serious?
EP: My first campaign experience was a blast! I first volunteered for State Representative Dian Slavens' re-election campaign during Get-Out-The-Vote and I'll never forget how fired up I was. For the first time I felt like I was helping to shape political outcomes, it was one of the most incredible feelings I've ever experienced. That first time, I was just a volunteer so I didn't have to prove to anybody that I was serious but Dian and her staff that year helped me get acquainted, answered all of my questions, and were super kind despite the stress they must have felt during GOTV. My first campaign experiences entailed knocking on doors to remind people to vote, leaving door hangers after dark, making phone calls reminding people to vote, and putting stickers with polling locations on door hangers. Back then, I knew almost nothing about campaigns.
After that I just kept showing up for things and kept seeking out ways to volunteer. Over time I gained the privilege of getting to know the people involved in politics in my area personally and calling many of them friends. So, it wasn't that hard to convince anybody that knew me that I was serious after I was given real responsibilities on campaigns and in my local Democratic club, the Canton Democratic Club, where I currently serve as Membership Chair. When I think about it though, I'm so thankful that so many people in politics gave me a chance, believed in me, and trusted me to do so many things.
FtM: You have grown from that experience into an almost full-time political operative, give us a rundown of all the campaigns you have worked.
EP: Dian Slavens for State Representative re-election campaign (2012); Plymouth-Canton Community Schools bond proposal--Vote Yes PCCS (2013); Natalie Mosher for State Representative (2014); Dian Slavens for State Senate (2014); and Dr. Syed Taj for Canton Township Supervisor (2016).
FtM: Wow, that's a lot of campaigns. What are the key lessons you have already learned in your political experiences that would be most helpful to engaging other people your age in politics?
EP: First, there's always something new somebody can teach you. I've learned so much over my four years as an activist but I make mistakes often and there's a lot I need help with from people who have been around longer. What's important is that you just keep learning. And most importantly, it's very easy to get discouraged but don't let that stop you from digging deeper and doing more. When your candidate doesn't win after a lot of hard work, when you are disgusted by the way people are acting, when people do wrong by you, when you see first-hand the worst of politics, never get discouraged because your activism and your efforts DO make a difference. When you feel terrible after a loss, remember that the next election is just around the corner. When you are disgusted by dirty politics, remember all the people in politics trying to make things better, and don't forget that YOU can make it better.
FtM: What are your hopes and goals for the DNC? Have you got your hotel room booked?
EP: I hope that when the platform is finalized, our party presents to the country a platform that is more progressive and continues to move America forward. For example, instead of simply saying we need to make college more affordable I'd love to see the Democratic Party officially adopt the position that all public universities and colleges should be tuition free. Or, instead of saying that social security should be protected, I hope we officially support expanding social security benefits for seniors who need it.
The Democratic National Committee has a block of rooms for Michigan delegates and I'm trying to find a roommate to split the costs, so I haven't officially booked my room. I'll know a little bit more information about booking the room after a delegate meeting taking place in Lansing on June 11th.
FtM: And after the DNC what’s the plan for Ethan? Tell us about your short-term and long-term plans.
EP: After the Convention I will have only about 2.5 weeks left until I move to Central Michigan University for my freshmen year of college. In those 2.5 weeks I'll be taking a camping trip with some friends to the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, spending time with friends and family, doing some more campaigning, and stepping down from some responsibilities in politics and church before I move to Mt. Pleasant.
My long-term plans are to earn my degree from Central Michigan University with a major in Nonprofit and Public Administration (and another major in Sociology or Political Science) and a minor in Leadership. After college, I hope to start a nonprofit organization that gathers data from disadvantaged neighborhoods in the inner-city and see what services are lacking (mentorship, food pantries, tutoring etc.) and the organization would then work to coordinate with existing nonprofits and charities to meet those needs and aid in fundraising and implementation of programs that are needed. I'll also continue being active in my faith community and in Democratic Party politics. I'd love to eventually serve my community in public office.
FtM: Something tells me you will do all that and more. Ethan, as always it has been a pleasure to talk with you. Best of luck at the DNC and then at CMU. I hear there’s a targeted State House race in Mt. Pleasant, I bet they’d welcome your help (on the weekdays – we still expect to see you in Western Wayne on some weekends!). Take care my friend.
EP: Thanks Nate, it was a pleasure talking to you too! I'm sure I’ll be back to help out.