The 14-year-old running for governor this year realizes his age makes him an unconventional candidate, but Ethan Sonneborn is convinced that once he has your curiosity, there’s a good chance he’ll be able to get your vote.
Last week, at a public access television studio in Burlington, five candidates vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination prepared for a primary debate that would be broadcast to thousands of households across Chittenden County
At first, the candidate sitting second from stage left looked a little out of place. He’s 14 after all. And even with the crisp blue suit he’s got on, Sonneborn looks his age.
But then, he started talking.
“I’m running for governor of Vermont,” Sonneborn began in his opening statement. “I can sum up my campaign in a simple phrase: It’s the job of the government to make people’s lives easier. And let me tell you how I think we do it.”
And suddenly you realize - Sonneborn might not look like your standard gubernatorial candidate, but he sure does sound like one.
Sonneborn, who lives in Bristol with his mom and dad, talked at length about the need for greater access to health care, raising incomes for low-wage workers, and reforming the school funding system.
“I think if education’s your issue, I’m your candidate,” Sonneborn said.
After the debate ended, Sonneborn seemed satisfied with his performance.
“Sometimes it still feels surreal though,” he said. “If you had told me a year ago that I was in a place where I could influence the statewide narrative, I would have told you, you were crazy.”
What a lot of people think is crazy is that a 14-year-old can legally run for governor in the first place.
“I think we should take a look at that, to be perfectly on honest with you,” incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott said at a recent press conference.
Scott said Sonneborn’s candidacy has exposed a problem, in terms of who can and cannot run for the state’s highest elected office.
“I think practically speaking, I think you should at least be able to get your driver’s license at the time that you become governor,” Scott said.
Sonneborn, however, rejects that line of thought. He noted that Vermont was the 14th state.
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“And if the governor thinks for a minute that the framers of the Vermont Constitution didn’t read the constitutions of other states that clearly laid out age requirements to hold statewide office, he’s delusional,” Sonneborn said.
Sonneborn said he thinks Scott’s remarks stem from a more self-serving concern.
“Phil Scott is running scared,” Sonneborn said. “I think he is politically messaging against a candidate who he thinks he might have a tough general election fight against.”
Sonneborn is doing in this campaign what many expert politicians have done before him: take his greatest liability - his age, in this case - and turn it into a strength.
Sonneborn said he thinks Vermonters are ready for a change candidate. And he said no one can lay claim to that mantle better than he can.
“People are looking for a fresh vision, they’re looking for change,” Sonneborn said. “And I think that’s a vision I offer and I think that’s a message that resonates with people.”
Sonneborn, who served as a page in the Vermont Legislature earlier this year, said he’s spent the past year immersing himself in politics and policy, to prepare himself for the gubernatorial run.
So what do his classmates make of his campaign?
“Well, some of them are working on my campaign, so they’re overwhelmingly supportive,” Sonneborn said.
Miles Burgess is one of those friends-cum-campaign workers - he’s the campaign manager.
“I understand the concerns about his age. I really do. It makes sense to me,” Burgess said.
Burgess said he definitely couldn’t serve as governor. He doesn’t think most 14-year-olds could.
But Sonneborn, he said, is just different.
“He wants to help people. He honestly wants to help people,” Burgess said. “And he doesn’t want to wait until he’s older to help fix it, and so he’s getting involved now.”
To the voters who are concerned about Sonneborn’s youth, Burgess would ask them to survey Washington, D.C., and ask themselves whether age is really a useful bellwether for competence.
Sonneborn himself went a step futher.
“I think that I am uniquely qualified to be governor because of my age, not in spite of it,” he said.
Some of the people Sonneborn has spent the most time with this primary campaign season - his Democratic opponents - said they appreciate the young candidate’s contribution to the political debate.
Sonneborn and candidate Brenda Siegel often exchange high-fives before or after debates and forums.
“We know that he’s 14 when he’s there, but his knowledge is impressive, and his level of political engagement is impressive,” Siegel said. “What I am really impressed with is that Ethan is able to inspire kids his age, so that hopefully when they do reach voting age, they will also be engaged the way he is.”
Voters will decide on Tuesday whether the kid stays in the picture this election season.
Win or lose, Sonneborn said public service is in his future.
Vermont’s 2018 primary election will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 14. The Vermont Secretary of State’s website has election-related information regarding voter registration, where your polling place is and more. Find VPR’s candidate interviews and profiles here.