By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post
MERRIAM, Kan. – A report from the Midwest, where a gangly hope has arrived in the form of children enrobed in various assortments of khakis and blazers, because six teenage boys are running for governor of the state of Kansas.
The would-be boy governors of Kansas. This was a funny concept for a while, and then it became absurd, and then a national tragedy happened and it became not funny but actually an emotion approaching tender, even aching.
But on the Monday before Valentines Day, as a half-dozen minors vied for the highest office of a state that had never bothered to codify any gubernatorial age requirements, it was still absurd. And so on that afternoon, while a suburban mom named Carrie Stracy debated whether to make meatloaf or use up the salmon in the fridge, her son, Tyler Ruzich, sat in his bedroom and discussed his candidacy.
“I have always thought of myself as more moderate, almost an Eisenhower Democrat,” said Tyler, 17, whose opponents in the Republican primary this summer include the current governor and the Kansas secretary of state. “For me, the question of government is a question about adequacy. There shouldn’t be an effort to grow, but there should be adequate funding to cover programs.”
Regarding the so-called “Kansas Experiment,” a tax cut enacted by former Gov. Sam Brownback, R, that left the state topsy-turvy with ballooning class sizes and shuttered social programs – “I am most certainly against that,” Tyler said.
Tyler has a slight build, dark blond hair and an earnest way of saying, “I’m not too sure about that” when he wants to think something over. He drives a rustbucket Oldsmobile to get to Shawnee Mission North High School, where he is a junior, or to pick up his girlfriend at a different high school. The girlfriend didn’t know Tyler was running when they met, but she learned shortly thereafter when they were walking through town and someone jauntily shouted, “Hello, Guvnor!”
At present, Tyler was a long way from his party’s nomination, but he did have a slogan – “A Republican for the Next Generation” – and he did have a website, and he did have an 11-year-old sister named Sadie who had taken to wearing a pale blue T-shirt reading “Ruzich for Governor,” especially when she heard company was coming.
Tyler was technically the second teenage gubernatorial candidate to join the race. The first was Jack Bergeson, a 16-year-old Democrat from Wichita, who declared partly to offer a full-throated Obamacare defense – the Affordable Care Act helped his family – back in the summer of 2017. Tyler heard of Jack through social media and reached out; it was Jack who convinced him they could make a big statement about Kansas’s sorry state of affairs if there were teen candidates from both parties. Tyler, who was the captain of his school’s debate team and whose wall was plastered with a poster-size U.S. Constitution, logged onto the state’s website and downloaded the necessary forms.
The third teenage candidate was Ethan Randleas, a 17-year-old Wichita Libertarian. The fourth was Dominic Scavuzzo, 17, a Republican from Kansas City; Scavuzzo’s classmate Joseph Tutera, 16, became the fifth a few weeks later. The sixth was Aaron Coleman, 17, a Green Party candidate, although several of the others confessed they were not entirely sure Coleman was still running (“I’ve never seen him at anything,” Dominic told Tyler recently) and his Twitter account seemed to operate in fits and starts.
Still, it could be said with certainty that either five or six teenage boys were running for governor in the state of Kansas.
They had come to mean something. They had come to reflect the morass of the country. Fifteen months ago, Donald Trump had won the presidency based on the idea that politics were so corrupt, Americans could only trust an outsider with no experience. Now Trump’s polling numbers were in the toilet and the boy governors of Kansas represented yet another reboot: Truly outsiders. Truly no experience. If Kansas laws permitted a passel of hormonal teenagers to clog the ballot – well, then, some onlookers ruefully shrugged, maybe those were the candidates we deserved.
The aspiring boy governors had been to debates. Granted interviews. They traveled in a pack dressed in their best sport coats – the kind parents buy teenage sons, with room to grow in the sleeves, giving the illusion that the candidates themselves were proper-sized; it was their clothing that was too big.
At around 4:30 p.m., Carrie knocked on her son’s door frame.
“Did you find someone?” she asked.
A few hours before, a producer from Soledad O’Brien’s news show, “Matter of Fact,” had called, inviting Tyler to Washington for the show Thursday morning. The producer offered the stipulation that Tyler needed an adult chaperon. Carrie said she could chaperon while Tyler’s stepdad watched Sadie, but offered the additional stipulation that Tyler must find someone to cover his shift bagging groceries at the HyVee.
“I’ve been texting people,” Tyler told her. “I thought Kelsey could do it, but she has choir practice.”
Eventually, with no luck, Tyler pulled on his parka and drove to the store, rationalizing that it would be harder for co-workers to turn him down in person. “I’ll just wander,” he decided, scanning the aisles and spotting a kid in an apron.
“Hey, Houston? Are you working Wednesday?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can I check your schedule? I need someone to cover my 4-to-8. I have to go to Washington.”
The swap arranged, Tyler grabbed a Sprite and took it to a register where an older woman named Sherry was rubbing her lower back.
“Tyler!” she said, perking up as she scanned the soda.
“How’s your back doing, Sherry? Are you back up to 35 hours yet?”
One of the things Tyler appreciated about HyVee was how he got to interact with people of all ages. He liked his colleagues, how they came from different walks of life.
“You know, lots of people ask me, what can you, Tyler Ruzich, do for people my age?” Tyler said, back in his car. “I say, we keep continuing these Old Man Principles that aren’t working. In [Alexander] Hamilton’s time, someone my age could be commander of a frigate. Did the Founding Fathers consider that a 17-year-old might be governor? I don’t know. Did they consider that a reality-television businessman would become president of the United States after losing the popular vote? Probably not.”
The next morning, Tyler got up and drove to a nearby Steak ’n Shake. The aspiring boy governors had been invited to debate each other in a little town called Hillsboro, and Tyler planned to carpool with Dominic.
“Jack’s not going to be there,” Tyler told Dominic once their burgers arrived. “He couldn’t miss any more math.”
“Got it,” said Dominic, whose gubernatorial preparation had involved working at his mom’s frozen yogurt shop and joining his school Spanish club.
“His running mate will be there, though,” Tyler said. “And Ethan will be there. That will be . . . fun.”
Dominic laughed. A byproduct of the boy governors’ youth: outsiders had begun to think of them as a unit, as if they all belonged to the same political party, called “Young.” But they believed in different things.
Tyler was the most liberal of the Republican candidates. He supported “LGBTQ-plus rights.” He supported protecting the Ogallala Aquifer, the water table beneath the Great Plains states. At debates, Tyler often found himself tangling with Ethan the libertarian, who opposed him on almost every issue.
The only thing that they agreed on was that the lawmakers making decisions about the state’s education didn’t have to go to the state’s schools. And that the politicians running the country weren’t the ones who were going to inherit it. Wasn’t it a civic responsibility for the teenagers to become politically involved?
If they didn’t change things, who would?
“Have all the TV people been reaching out to you?” Dominic asked as they drove past flat fields and rusty water towers. Dominic told Tyler he’d gotten a call from Lionsgate.
“Lionsgate?” Tyler repeated. He wasn’t sure about the people wanting to make movies. It was hard enough to be taken seriously without bringing Hollywood into the mix. Especially for the Republican candidates. While Jack, the 16-year-old Democrat, had been invited to participate in events with the party’s older candidates, the GOP had shut out Tyler and Dominic from anything official.
A Republican state lawmaker was now trying to pass a bill saying that in all future elections, candidates must be 18. “We have age requirements on voters,” one of the bill’s supporters, Rep. Keith Esau, had told the Kansas City Star. “Anybody who’s running should be able to vote for themselves.”
Tyler felt wounded by this exclusion but compensated by accepting every news interview. This seemed the best way to gain exposure for his positions, but the interviewers almost never wanted to talk about his positions, just his age. He practiced deflection: “I guess if I’m governor, I could keep pardoning myself for truancy,” he said when reporters asked, winking, how he could finish high school from the governor’s mansion. “But on a more serious note. . . .”
On a more serious note, he wanted to talk about governmental transparency, he told the reporters. On a more serious note, he wanted to talk about how his party could connect more with young people. On a more serious note, could they have a conversation about net neutrality, and how he saw its repeal as a way of taxing poor people?
“Yes, I am old enough to drive,” he repeated wearily to a reporter on the telephone. He paused. “I drive a ’94 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.”
Tyler and Dominic arrived at the Hillsboro debate a few minutes late, victims of a faulty GPS, and by the time they got to the high school auditorium, Ethan and Jack’s running mate, Alexander Cline, were already onstage (Alexander later described Jack’s absence as an “unavoidable scheduling conflict,” sidestepping the question of math class).
Alexander wore a traditional boy-governor suit. Ethan, the Libertarian, wore a T-shirt with a cartoon snake and the slogan, “No step on snek” – a “Don’t tread on me” interpretation for the 21st century – and was expounding on family farms. “The way to help is to get the government out of the farm,” said the candidate, who had worked on his own family’s since he was 11. “The struggle for small farms is too great.”
“That’s why you subsidize them,” offered Tyler, joining him on the stage.
The candidates talked about tax rates and their views on abortion, and then a teenage audience member went to the microphone for the next question:
“Tyler, do you plan on keeping conceal-carry laws the same? If not, what do you plan on doing to change them?
Tyler nodded. “I believe, first of all, that the Second Amendment needs to be upheld. However, I still believe that when it comes to – Now wait, I haven’t even said anything controversial yet,” he said as Ethan began to protest. “What I’m going to say is that public university students should not be allowed to carry guns on campus. We are too many school shootings too late.”
“My sister goes to Kansas State,” Dominic jumped in, citing a campus that permitted concealed weapons. “Professors do not feel safe there. It’s just spun into madness.”
After the debate, the candidates posed for a photo, and then Dominic and Tyler drove home and Tyler went to his job and spent the next five hours standing at a cash register, ringing up ice cream tubs and packages of frozen chicken.
Tyler and his mother were driving to the airport the next day, Valentine’s Day, when his phone buzzed with a news alert: Police were seeking an active school shooter in a Florida town called Parkland.
By the time they checked in for their flight to Washington, Tyler’s phone told him the death toll was rising. He thought about his own school. What if the shooter had been there, and Tyler had been caught, hiding for his life? Or what if, because he’d skipped his last class to make it to the airport, he’d been safe while his classmates were left to hide alone? He decided that would have been worse.
By the next morning, the teenage students of Parkland were already making their voices heard. Tyler watched as David Hogg went on CNN and implored lawmakers: “We’re children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action.” There were videos of bloody bodies on Snapchat, and Tyler was putting on his blazer and going to the Newseum for Soledad O’Brien’s show.
Jack had been invited, too, and the two sat in armchairs across from their interviewer, who for once didn’t ask whether they were old enough to drive.
“One of the big stories of the week is another school shooting,” O’Brien said. “What would be your strategy for bringing an end for what people would agree is clearly a crisis?”
Tyler and Jack told her they both believed in gun-control measures.
Did Tyler realize, O’Brien asked, that this put him in opposition with most Republicans?
Tyler had bags under his eyes, and AP exams he needed to register for, and he needed to be back in Kansas by that evening because he had to be in school the next morning. His voice was a little hoarse.
“If I’m making an enemy of the NRA, that’s something I’m kind of proud of, to be honest,” he told O’Brien. “I’ve seen what gun violence does. It’s time that we change the rhetoric and the discussion. Because clearly we are too far gone to say it’s a mental illness problem.”
Was that the right answer to have given on national television? He wasn’t sure. It was what he believed. Why couldn’t any of the adult politicians seem to say what they believed, he wondered. The kids were all saying what they believed. Whatever the consequences, the kids believed in something.
Tyler spent the rest of the week following the news back home in Kansas, along with all of the other boy governors.
In quieter moments, when he wasn’t trying to spin things, he admitted that his chances of winning were not very good. But then again, he would turn 18 by the time the primaries rolled around this summer. And because of that, he at least had already registered to vote.