For 24-Year-Old Statehouse candidate Zach Stepp, sitting on the sidelines this election was not an option.
by Peter Kusnic
Fresh out of college, Zach Stepp returned to his hometown in Lorain County in 2017, hoping to make a difference. He got involved with Janet Garrett’s (ultimately unsuccessful) bid to unseat Republican Jim Jordan in the US House, starting out as a volunteer and working his way up to Campaign Manager.
“I definitely didn’t foresee that happening, but it just goes to show how much opportunity and need there is for young people to get involved,” Stepp says. The 24-year-old’s rapid ascendency in politics accelerated in April, when Stepp – who identifies as bisexual – secured the Democratic nomination to represent District 55 in the Statehouse. The district, which encompasses a portion of Lorain County, is competitive for Democrats and could help break the Republican Super Majority in the state legislature this November. If elected, Stepp will be the first openly bisexual member of the state House of Representatives.
The Buckeye Flame caught up with Stepp to learn more about his historic candidacy and why now is the time for young people to get more involved with politics.
What drew you to politics?
I was pretty taken aback by the 2016 election, and after graduating from college the following year, I realized the best thing I could do was go back to my hometown and try to make a difference. Growing up in a low-income household, I learned the importance of food stamps and state-sponsored healthcare – my family depended on these resources like so many others still do, and I decided to throw myself into a campaign that was fighting to protect the social safety net. I volunteered for Janet Garrett’s campaign and offered to help with the website and social media. I said, ‘I’m not looking to make money off of this, I just want to help you out.’ That led to a job as Janet’s Communications Director, and things kind of snowballed so that by May 2018 I was her Campaign Manager.
That a 21- or 22-year-old can start out as a volunteer and end up overseeing a $700,000 congressional campaign budget proves how badly these candidates – especially at the state and local level – need young people. Frankly, it’s the only way Dems are going to be able to win districts like the one I am running in now and break the Republican Super Majority in the Statehouse, which allows them to do virtually anything they want without a single Democratic vote.
Why run for office now?
I certainly did not foresee running for office at 24, but I couldn’t imagine sitting on the sidelines at a moment like this. Who can afford to wait 20 years when who knows what the world will be like in 20 years? We need new leadership today. I keep pushing young people: If you don’t like the way things are, grab a clipboard and either go run for office yourself or find candidate you can advocate for and do all you can to get them elected. Until we mobilize, we aren’t going to see much change.
Workers’ rights are at the center of your platform, which is a reason Sherrod Brown cited in his endorsement of your campaign. Tell us about your policy priorities.
People’s view of their own upward mobility is lower than it’s ever been due to high student loan debt and limited employment opportunities. In Ohio, these factors are driving more young Ohioans to other states with more opportunity. That’s a big economic and social problem for our state, but our elected officials are doing almost nothing about it. One way the state can help is by funding the transition of former industrial sites, shopping malls, and the like into something that is more attractive to investors. Without help from the state, many of these defunct spaces will continue to decay, and the effect on the surrounding communities is severe. It shouldn’t be an option to just allow communities to die, but it has sort of become the default.
Revitalizing the labor movement and renormalizing unionization will also make the state more competitive. Unions not only help guarantee fair pay, but also provide many other protections that’ll attract and retain talent. Because Ohio is an at-will employment state, you can be fired for almost any reason, so the protections unions can provide are important to safeguard other ones – like the recently won protections from employment discrimination for LGBTQ+ people.
What does it mean to you to be an out bisexual man running for office?
I just had a great conversation with Senator [Nickie] Antonio – currently the only out member of the General Assembly – and one of the things she told me was that it’s okay to run for office and be who you are without making it all about who you are. Of course, I will be a staunch advocate for the LGBTQ+ community and I claim my sexuality as a badge of pride; helping any kid feel more accepted or seen would be humbling and inspiring. But there are many issues I am passionate about that go beyond that one aspect of my identity as we’ve just discussed, and I plan on fighting for them just as hard.
- Learn more about Zach Stepp’s campaign bid for the Ohio House of Representatives by visiting his website or follow the campaign on Facebook.
- Registering to vote LITERALLY takes less than two minutes. Go to https://www.vote.org/register-to-vote/ohio/to start and finish this process right this very second.
Peter Kusnic is a writer and editor based in Cleveland, OH.