Gen Z candidates toss traditional campaign strategies for Allentown City Council races

Written by on March 23, 2021

Gen Z candidates toss traditional campaign strategies for Allentown City Council races

By Genesis Ortega

March 23, 2021

Erik Rodriguez and Natalie Santos. Photo | Courtesy of United Youth.

A new crop of younger candidates wants to change things up on Allentown City Council and as these candidates have progressive ideas on campaign strategy and how to reach voters. 

Listen to the story.

Every up-and-coming politician has an origin story. For 25-year-old Erik Rodriguez, it was a political conversation at the unlikeliest of places. 

“At a beer fest. But I realized at that point that I knew servicing the community, doing more for the community was something that I wanted to get into,” Rodriguez says.  

Michael Frassetto, who would eventually become Rodriguez’s campaign manager, says the murder of George Floyd a year later accelerated the drive to launch the campaign. 

“This summer was powerful after George Floyd, and we came to the conclusion that, hey, if young people really want a voice in the city, you’re not going to really have a voice unless you win these elected seats,” Frassetto says. 

There are nine people running for City Council in the Democratic primary election. And because Democrats outnumber Republicans in Allentown, the results of this election hold a lot of weight. 

Unlike the other candidates, Rodriguez has a running mate: 21-year-old Natalie Santos. He says the decision to pair up was a show of force against the establishment. 

“We’re going up against what you call ‘the machine.’ People who have held their seats for 3, 4, 5 terms. And Natalie and I are new. We’re new to the game, we’re new to the scene, we don’t have all the connections that they have,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez and Santos share the same political platform, but their life experiences set them apart. 

Rodriguez is married and a father of three children. He owns a daycare/learning center and is a homeowner. 

Santos is a first generation college student at Kutztown University. She’s majoring in psychology and the Spanish language and has a passion for the environment.

If elected, Rodriguez and Santos would be the youngest serving members. 

Northampton Community College’s Assistant Professor of Political Science Sam Chen says young people involved in politics isn’t new. They’ve always been somewhat involved behind the scenes. What’s changing is that they’re disregarding the idea of needing to “wait their turn” to enter elected office.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re winning their offices more but you do see more and more young people coming out to run,” Chen says.

And their political campaigns tend to rely more heavily on social media. 

Campaign Manager Frassetto says his candidates have amassed a large social media presence and they’re rolling with it. 

“You contact people through text messaging, Messenger, Instagram, Facebook and that’s where we’re dominating right now,” Frassetto says. 

But it’s also strategic. Although Rodriguez is comfortable interacting with people in any medium, Santos prefers to use technology to connect. 

She declined an interview with WLVR News, but here she is in a campaign video on YouTube, talking about the importance of having more diverse candidates.

“It’s extremely important because real representation matters, and if you don’t see someone that looks like you in elected positions then you’re more likely to feel excluded,” Santos says. 

Frassetto defends her decision to avoid not only interviews but also debates and live panels. 

“That’s not her skill at 21. We’re creating a whole different arena, a whole different way of campaigning and connecting to the people in Allentown. And why wouldn’t we? Because right now the politicians have not connected well with the common people of Allentown,” Frassetto says.  

This digital connection with voters will bring more young people into the fold, he says. 

And the numbers could favor younger candidates. About half of the city’s population is under the age of 29, almost double the number of those who are over the age of 50, according to the latest American Community Survey.

But political scientist Sam Chen says the question really comes down to turnout.

“The age population that votes the least and has the lowest turnout are young people. It’s that 18-29 demographic. And so certainly they have the largest capacity for improvement,” Chen says. 

Chen cautions any candidate from relying on any one campaign strategy like social media. He says because of low voter turnout, incumbents have an advantage, especially in municipal primary elections. 

“The incumbent comes in with name recognition and with the machine. Now it’s not impossible, but I think it’s difficult to overcome that,” Chen says.  

With three incumbents on the ballot, the question is will Rodriguez and Santos’ campaign style, social media tactics and network be enough to grow support and get people out to vote for them on Election Day?  

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