Election season is in full swing in the United States, with candidates battling it out in the midterm elections across the country. With the recent victory of 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the New York congressional primary, attention has quickly shifted towards the young candidates who’ve thrown their hats into the ring. Across the country, young Democrats and Republicans are determined to mark a new course in their country’s political history. Two of those young leaders are OYW Ambassadors Billy Kovacs of Arizona (D) and Jason Emert of Tennessee (R), both of whom are running for Congressional seats in their respective districts.
We spoke to both of them about their motivations to run for office.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
I am an eighth generation East Tennessean and running for Congress in the same district I grew up. Professionally, I am an international attorney and businessman, adjunct professor, and the Chairman of the Young Republican National Federation (YRNF). I have made a career working globally in law, business, and politics while maintaining a commitment to my local community. As the Managing Director of The Emert Group, our company specializes in growth market opportunities, public relations, and government relations. As an adjunct professor, I teach American government, U.S. foreign policy and international relations.
I have been recognized by several national organizations, particularly as a “Future Leader in Foreign Policy” by the Foreign Policy Initiative; Maverick PAC’s “Future 40 under 40”; and the Young Republican National Federation Man of the Year. This allowed me to gain unprecedented experience to start my own company and continue to work where my passions lie.
I’ve been an entrepreneur, community activist, and small business owner in Southern Arizona for over 10 years. From founding a successful restaurant, marketing company, and vineyard to being a former Ambassador for the University of Arizona at Tech Launch Arizona as well as the Arizona Technology Council I’ve tried to bring my community together through mentorship and networking.
In 2014 I ran a campaign for the 1st openly LGBTQ member of the Arizona House of Representatives, and in the fall of 2016 I was accepted to the Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Fellowship, which promotes and mentors community leaders to work on bipartisan solutions for Arizona and the country. Currently, I work as a creative consultant for Hotel Congress in Tucson, where I focus on their 100th year anniversary by creating creative spaces and concepts. I believe that working together with a diverse group of community stakeholders is the best way to grow a community and make an attractive place for the next generation of creators and entrepreneurs to live.
At a time when society is becoming increasingly polarised, how will your leadership help bring your community together?
Today we don’t look at opposing political parties as a battle of ideas, but rather as enemies. That’s a very dangerous place to be. I have many Democrat friends and value those friendships. I just think they are wrong. Nevertheless, no one gets into politics without a true devotion and love of country. I think there is a lot more common ground than not. The problem with politics, and where it is frustrating for someone like me with a business background, is that politicians want to focus on the 10-20% of things they disagree with an opposing party on, instead of the 80-90% they do.
I’m running to give a new voice to my community that looks past partisan ideology and places facts and the needs of my community first. Every day I reach out to republicans, democrats, independents, progressives, and libertarians and try to find the ideas and issues that we agree on so we can build bridges towards tackling the things that we disagree on. We can’t make long-standing transformative change to our government by not having buy-in from those from opposing viewpoints. As leaders we should be able to compromise on ideas without compromising our ideals; that’s how our system of government should work.
Why do you think so few young people are involved in politics – what can we do to change this?
First, I don’t think millennials know their power, so may be difficult for some to see what’s in it for them at this point in time. But, Millennials are now the largest voting age bloc in the nation, surpassing Baby Boomers for the first time in the upcoming 2018 elections. Millennials should have every reason to be taken seriously as a political force by politicians and as political candidates.
Yet, I believe our generation is disgusted with the business of politics. For our entire life politics has been dominated by political gamesmanship and politicians who put off difficult decisions - mostly affecting our generation and the generations behind us - because our future isn’t politically expedient. Instead our generation would rather cut through the bureaucracy of government to find solutions on their own and be left alone.
However, I know there are a lot of great young leaders all across the country because I’ve met several of them as chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. We have young congressmen, mayors, councilmen and community leaders around the U.S. who are passionate about our nation’s political future. I still believe that America’s best days are in front of us because I know the character of our future leaders.
We do this by supporting candidates and leaders that they can believe in. We need to educate and inspire young people to get involved in the outcomes of their future. Young people need to know that each one of us has a voice and if we stand up for what we believe in and use that voice then we can change the world. I hope my candidacy does just that.
If you have faced any criticism or setbacks as a young candidate, how have you responded to such challenges?
The biggest criticism I get is “your too young wait your turn” and “you're not experienced”. I use these two criticisms as fodder to fuel my campaign. There will always be naysayers, and I’ve responded by working harder than every other candidate and setting the tone for my campaign and the outcomes that I want to accomplish over these 18 months without trying to cater to what others think I should do. I remind myself daily of what path I’m on by and it is perfectly summed up in a poem by Marianne Williamson. ” “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I think any time you are not the insiders’ choice then you face pushback on running for office. Being young does require you to be on point at all times, any mistake will be amplified. This has actually made me a better candidate and I’m thankful for it. I had the same experience when first working with world leaders and I always relished the opportunity to prove my worth. Plus, I know I am the best candidate for Congress in this race and I would not be running if that was not the case.
Moreover, it is funny to me that people are quick to forget that our Declaration of Independence was written by a 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson or the “Father of the Constitution” James Madison was 36 years old during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 or Alexander Hamilton was 34 when he was confirmed to be the first Secretary of the Treasury - just to name a few of our Founding Fathers under 40 years old. Being young and idealistic with a bold vision for the future is what created our great nation and has sparked the overthrow of tyrants and the spread of freedom the world over for over two centuries. So I believe being a young candidate is far more of an asset than anything else.
How do you see America’s role in the world changing over the next five years?
I look at the last presidential election as an example of what we have in store for my country. I believe the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were the best things that have happened American politics in the last 9years. Bernie Sanders taught us to believe in our government and our politicians again, and he inspired millions to engage in the political system that has seen a cloud of complacency over it for decades. He taught us that our vote mattered, and the power of the people is what makes our republic great. Donald Trump's campaign taught us we have left a large part of our country behind. We forgot that the middle of America had been decimated when manufacturing and industry had left, and the people that were affected saw a candidate in Trump that was not “business as usual”, and were willing to look past a morally flawed candidate to get the American dream that they lost back. Most importantly Donald Trump brought out Americans deep dark secret, and that is that Racism, Misogyny, bigotry, and hate are things that we still have to face in our country. These problems aren’t just found in a few places, they are everywhere. He has made us question our friends, families, cities, communities, and has put a lasting stain on what it means to be an American. The next 5 years for our country is about finding our values again and our identity again. American was once the greatest country in the world, and we can be it again if we learn from our past, and choose to make the changes necessary to cultivate the future of a free and just society.
Everyone who is currently in Congress or running for office should prioritize the future the country which is represented by the young people across the United States. Almost half of the people who live in the Second Congressional of Tennessee are under the age of 35. Two things in particular: curtailing government spending and prioritizing economic development especially in our rural communities.
First, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has gone a long way in reforming our outdated tax code to spur economic growth, but the role of government is not to reform the economy to enlarge government coffers. Our federal government should have a Balanced Budget requirement. Every state except Vermont has some sort of balanced budget amendment to their constitutions. We have out an of control debt of over $20 trillion - this cannot continue. It is morally reprehensible that a child born in 2018 bears an almost $45,000 share of the publicly held federal debt from their first breath. If we want to look out for our future generations we must reign in government spending and address the federal debt crisis. As a congressman, I intend to propose a balanced budget amendment and prioritize curtailing cutting down on government waste and abuse.
Second, our economy is changing quickly and we must prioritize economic development for the 21st century that provides for the upward mobility of poor Americans, opportunities for the middle class and chronically unemployed, and ends the crony capitalism scheme that only benefits political benefactors and stakeholders. All of these disproportionately affect people in rural communities and urban centers. We can do this by: rethinking education so our children’s success isn’t defined by the zip code they were born and encouraging the development of trade schools to meet the jobs of the future; passing a national right to work act; reforming our criminal justice system which often keeps people in a cycle of crime and poverty, which overwhelmingly hurts poor Americans - especially minorities; eliminating senseless regulations and taxes that keep families businesses and small farms operating below potential; and championing the end of the pay-to-play scheme of occupational licensing.
All of these changes and more will lead to growth in our rural communities, small towns, and urban centers. We cannot allow for our nation to continue to divide itself as have and have nots, Wall Street over Main Street because it is unsustainable. To reach our potential as a nation with a robust economy that benefits everyone we must loosen the gripe of government so all Americans have an opportunity to be successful.
What have you taken away from One Young World which you can apply to your role as a candidate for Congress?
I am proud of the friendships. OYW teaches that you can be friends and collaborate with people all over the world in various capacities and beliefs. Our world is more connected that ever, but also feels more distant at times especially when we retreat within our own “tribes.” OYW bridges this divide to present other viewpoints and perspective. I appreciate this and hope that I, too, could use my beliefs to challenge others but promote camaraderie and respect knowing that we are all in this together.
For me, the biggest take away was the access to information and the network of advocates that I received at the Environmental Summit. Many of the issues we face in regards to the environment and climate change can be solved when we have people who understand how to connect the dots through the work that others have spent a lifetime on. Gathering information from multiple perspectives on a certain issue allows me to make better decisions. One Young World is apart of a network of resources that is used to provide relevant and fact-based information regarding issues that I advocate for.