Jewel Hurtado first heard of Bernie Sanders when she was 17, still a high school student and trying to figure out whom to vote for in California's 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
The Central Valley resident watched a video of the Vermont senator talking about challenges confronting the working class and people of color, people like many in her small agricultural town. He spoke about equality for the LGBTQ community, a group she knows well as a bisexual woman. His message about universal healthcare coverage resonated with Hurtado, who was uninsured at the time.
"Yeah, maybe he was just another old white man politician," she said, "but that’s not what it was about for me. It was about the fact that I felt seen."
She wanted to push for those changes, too. So she ran to be a delegate with the Democratic Party when she was 18. In 2018, she launched a bid for a seat on the Kingsburg City Council and won by eight votes.
Hurtado is just one of a legion of young progressives inspired by Sanders who have set out to run for local, state and federal positions to advocate issues the senator helped bring into the mainstream conversation during his 2016 and 2020 presidential bids. From the Central Valley to Lewiston, Maine, they have won public office so they could advocate changes both small and sweeping.
“He said no matter if it’s for a city council or you’re running to be a delegate for the party, whatever it is … get involved,” said Hurtado, now 21. “People have power, and we need to reclaim that.”
Having young people in office changes the tenor of the conversation on issues such as affordable housing, student debt and the climate crisis, said Amanda Litman, executive director and co-founder of Run for Something, which helps progressive candidates younger than 40 run for seats ranging from school boards to state legislatures.
About 50,000 people from every state have reached out since the organization launched in 2017, and about 10% have run or are currently running, Litman said Wednesday. So far, of the candidates the group has endorsed, 306 have been elected, and an additional 250 are currently on ballots, she said.
“You’re going to get a president one day, whether it’s in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, who says, ‘I first ran for city council because I was inspired by Bernie Sanders,’” Litman said.
In his speech announcing he was suspending his campaign, Sanders encouraged his supporters to continue electing progressive candidates at every level of government. He said he would continue to collect delegates through the Democratic National Convention so his supporters could exert influence over the party.
“I ran for the presidency because I believe that, as a president, I could accelerate and institutionalize the progressive changes that we are all building together. And if we keep organizing and fighting, I have no doubt that that is exactly what will happen,” Sanders said. “While the path may be slower now, we will change this nation and, with like-minded friends around the globe, change the entire world.”
Young people have long aimed to wield political influence, whether protesting local school policies or marching for civil rights, said Kathryn Schumaker, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma's Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage.
Shifting a political system as elected officials takes a sustained effort, she said. She noted that before Barack Obama became the first black president in 2008, major cities had begun electing the first black mayors decades earlier.
The "fastest change you can see happen is at the local level,” she said. "It’s the less glamorous side of politics, but you can make a pretty profound difference.”
In Ohio, Morgan Harper, 36, is running for Congress on a platform of universal child care, universal income and support for the Green New Deal. Harper, who is challenging the Democrat who has held the seat since 2013, tapped into networks of progressive organizers, including some created as a result of Sanders' 2016 run.
"It's undeniable that Bernie Sanders has changed the American political landscape for generations to come,” she said.
Millennials and Generation Z, shaped by economic and social crises, embraced Sanders' promise of a political revolution, and his push for universal healthcare has begun to gain broader Democratic support across more age groups.
“He really was able to uplift and make more mainstream these ideas of policy solutions that would impact all of us and not just those who happened to make enough money," said Sarah Audelo, executive director of the Alliance for Youth Action, a group that supports youth organizers focused on political engagement across the country.
Now those young voters are "looking at the impact of the failure of our government on our communities" and realizing they must step up to find solutions, she said.
Safiya Khalid was busy with college and work when Sanders first ran for president in 2016, but his call for getting rid of private prisons, enacting universal healthcare and raising teacher salaries drew her into the political fold.
In 2019, she ran for a City Council seat in Lewiston, Maine, on a platform calling for smaller class sizes in public schools and more affordable housing. She faced racist comments online, but she ended up winning nearly 70% of the vote, becoming the first Somali American elected to the council.
"For a long time we’ve been told to step aside and listen to other people, and when we do that, we get discriminated against because of our differences," the 24-year-old said. The progressive movement, she added, has room for people of color, women, anyone looking for a change.
In 2018, Bryan Osorio led members of the Delano, Calif., community in a march after two farmworkers died in a car crash when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents pursued them in a case of mistaken identity.
The march and the young people he spoke to made him consider what else he could do for his hometown, where farmworkers started the 1960s grape strike, which was later joined by labor rights icon Cesar Chavez. By getting involved in local politics, Osorio knew he could address the poverty, unemployment and pollution plaguing Delano. So he ran for Delano City Council that year and won.
Osorio, now 24, is the youngest member of the council and feels that his progressive leanings stick out in Kern County, where registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats. Like Hurtado, he sees the role he plays at the local level as part of the national push for progressive change.
"I think it should be important to remember that it’s not just about voting for the next president but also for the next locally elected official," he said. "From there, those movements start in your area.”