At first, the college sophomore didn’t tell her parents what she had done.
Sydney Clinton paced back and forth outside the State Election Commission Office in downtown Columbia, clutching her iPhone after she sent a message in the family group chat. She texted her mom, “Call me ASAP.”
She hoped they would understand. Her phone rang.
“Mommy, I’m OK. Nothing’s wrong, but don’t be mad,” Clinton said, according to her mother. “I filed to run for the District 98 State House seat against Chris Murphy,” the Dorchester Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
If elected, Clinton would become the youngest person sworn into the South Carolina Legislature in history. She would also be balancing her political duties in the State House with the academic demands of completing her sociology degree at the University of South Carolina.
And she’s not alone. This year, three college students are running on the Democratic ticket to become lawmakers in the South Carolina State House, a legislative body where, in 2019, the average age was 55.
These undergraduates are pitching themselves as unique representatives who can speak for a generation that, until now, has been encouraged to vote but has rarely been involved in the very political decisions that will impact their futures.
If elected, all have promised to fight for improvements to South Carolina’s public schools, which they are all products of, and want to address the state’s teacher shortage, among other issues.
All of them have a connection to the Charleston area. Two are already their party’s nominee for the general election. Only one of them can legally drink.
“It goes to show you there is not only a creativeness and idealism that goes along with being young, but also a courageousness,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson. “They’re not just going to sit by and talk about the problems and issues that face us, but they are going to step up and try to create the solutions to fix them.”
Can they do this?
In Murrells Inlet, Ryan Thompson, a 21-year-old graduating senior at the College of Charleston, is running for the open Horry County seat represented by outgoing Republican Russell Fry.
Fry is now challenging U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, in an intensifying GOP primary.
In Mount Pleasant, 20-year-old Stephen Hilton, a senior at the University of South Carolina, announced his candidacy last year to run for the coastal Charleston County seat currently held by Republican Joe Bustos, a lawmaker who is 51 years older than him.
And it’s all entirely legal.
In South Carolina, candidates must be 21 if they want to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. Candidates only need to meet that age requirement by the time of the election, under state law.
Clinton makes the cut. Her birthday is Sept. 18.
She also submitted all the necessary paperwork for her candidacy three minutes before the noon deadline last month. She paid the $208 filing fee. She sought counsel from the leader of the S.C. Democratic Party and her fellow Dorchester County Democrats.
Only after it was official did Clinton tell her parents she was going to be on the ballot.
“As a father, you know, she’s no longer a 20-year-old college kid. When she filed that paperwork, she became a 20-year-old adult and that’s sad to me,” her dad, Steve Clinton, said of the mixed emotions he initially had about his oldest daughter becoming a candidate in South Carolina. “There’s a loss of innocence and there’s no turning back. She’s put herself in the public eye.”
But more than anything, her father said he’s proud. He called his daughter “the change agent we so desperately need.”
Murphy, the lawmaker Clinton is trying to unseat, is a Republican incumbent who first took office in 2011, when Clinton was 10. But no one, she points out, has challenged Murphy on a general election ballot since 2016.
“South Carolina is facing a litany of issues that we can’t afford to just keep ignoring,” Clinton said. “And so I decided why not do this? Why not step up to give District 98 a choice in who represents them?”
Murphy, 53, said he is not focused on his general election fight right now, as he is facing a Republican primary challenger.
“The seat doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the people of House District 98. Every two years, they get the opportunity to elect their representative. I’m encouraged, honestly, to see younger people taking part in the political process,” Murphy said.
Thompson, who is graduating from the College of Charleston in May and running for House District 106 in Horry County, said he, too, wants to give voters in his district an option — especially young voters who have grown disillusioned by American politics.
Thompson, who has volunteered and worked on presidential, congressional and local races since 2017, said one of his campaign strategies is to register as many high school students as he can to vote this year, whether they are Republicans or Democrats.
But this campaign is also personal for him.
Thompson identifies as a gay man. One of the reasons he got interested in politics is because South Carolina does not have a hate crime law.
“Growing up as a queer individual in this state makes you feel very powerless. When your elected officials enact policies that disproportionately discriminate against you and tell you what you can and can’t do as an individual, it’s very frustrating and disheartening. For me, I was tired of feeling like I didn’t have a choice in the future that I was going to have,” he said.
Hilton, who announced his candidacy last summer, has already encountered some frustrations on the campaign trail.
Unlike Clinton and Thompson, Hilton has to make it through a June 14 primary. He’s running against 41-year-old Dave Artushin for his party’s nomination.
When Artushin announced his candidacy in late March, his press release claimed he was expected to be the only Democratic candidate in the race. That frustrated Hilton, who launched his campaign in July 2021.
“My primary candidate is the example of feeling kind of ignored because of my age,” Hilton said. “He just wants to ignore that this young vigorous guy is running. I get that sometimes people think I’m too young, but there are others who want to see change and want me to bring this perspective to the State House.”
Hilton, an engineering student who is on track to graduate from the University of South Carolina in December, said most of his classmates tell him they have no interest in staying in the Palmetto State.
“I want them to stay in South Carolina and keep their skills here, and grow our industry, especially in the Lowcountry, which is more tourism-based right now,” Hilton said. “COVID showed us that we need that backup of industry, and I really want to help grow that engineering and science fields that could give people an opportunity to stay and live the life they want.”
In an interview, Artushin clarified that it is “wonderful to see young people just starting off in life pursuing public service and wanting to be a part of our Democracy.” He added that he would like to see more young candidates running for political office moving forward.
“Stephen Hilton and I, because we’re both Democrats, we probably share a lot of similar opinions on certain issues but it’s obvious we are both very different candidates,” Artushin said. “I think being a father and husband and a professional with over 20 years of life experience and work experience under my belt gives me a more diverse and pragmatic view of the issues that face District 112.”
Bustos, the Republican incumbent, said in an interview Friday that he welcomed seeing college students running as candidates, even if it means they are challenging him.
“It’s interesting to get different points of view, and for the voters to see that is good. It may even be in my favor because the one thing I do have is experience with going on 15 years of elected office now, and I understand people have to start somewhere. I don’t begrudge them,” he said. “I tip my hat to them.”
Can they win?
South Carolina voters have shown a willingness to take a chance on college students who step up to run for State House seats.
Republican Brandon Newton was getting his undergraduate degree at the University of South Carolina when he became a candidate for his Lancaster County seat in 2016. He won, and went on to win reelection in 2018 and 2020.
Now he is his party’s chief majority whip in the House, where he serves on the judiciary and rules committees.
And in 1978, when he was a 20-year-old college student in the middle of his junior year at Clemson University, David Beasley ran for a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives as a Democrat.
In a controversial primary contest, he beat an eight-year veteran of the General Assembly by a narrow 10-vote margin and went on to win in November. Beasley transferred to the University of South Carolina and, during his 13 years in the State House, went on to serve as the youngest speaker pro tempore and majority leader in the nation.
In 1994, he was elected governor of South Carolina as a Republican. Beasley is now the executive director for the United Nations’ World Food Program, and, in 2020, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization.
Though he was not in college at the time, in 2006 Bakari Sellers made history when he became the youngest African American elected official in the nation when he joined the South Carolina Legislature at age 22.
This year, Democratic political watchers say the House District 98 race could be more competitive than in years past.
Robertson points out that women currently make up 55% of registered voters in House District 98, represented by Murphy, and it is a voter base Clinton can uniquely tap into as a female candidate herself.
Lachlan McIntosh, a Charleston-based Democratic political consultant who is not affiliated with any of these campaigns, said redistricting could also make the Dorchester County seat highly competitive, with one analysis showing Republicans could make up about 51% of the district’s voter base this year.
But Murphy has represented the district for more than a decade. He also has about $33,000 in his campaign account compared to Clinton’s $4,000.
While he must first face a challenger in his party’s June primary, Murphy said he is not worried about the seat flipping anytime soon.
“Remember, I was in charge of redistricting,” the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said. “They can try to spin it that way, but I can tell you it’s not 51%republican, and I feel confident will remain a Republican seat.”
Though Clinton and her fellow collegiate candidates acknowledge the challenges ahead as Democrats running in a state where Republicans regularly dominate political races, they are hopeful voters will give them a fair shot.
They are all belong to Generation Z, the current youngest generation of adults born since 1996.
Clinton was born a week after the the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But Clinton and Thompson also represent a generation who are growing up and running for public office after they were first compelled to speak out after another American tragedy: The 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead in Parkland, Florida.
Clinton and Thompson were both leaders in local March for Our Lives chapters in South Carolina. In their House candidacies, both are advocating for gun reform measures, like closing the so-called Charleston loophole and expanding the background check period.
“It’s critical that we recognize the power that young people have, and the passion that young people have. I think oftentimes, so many people discount us because of our age, and then they want to, you know, on the flip side, talk about how young people don’t care,” Clinton said.
At her campaign kickoff event in Summerville last week, Clinton looked out at the crowd who gathered at Kickin’ Chicken. Her mom was there, recording the moment on her red iPhone. Her dad wore a royal blue T-shirt that said, “Sydney Clinton for District 98.”
“The time is now to embrace a new generation of leadership so that we can create this place of progress, sustainability and innovation that we all so deeply deserve,” Clinton said.
She beamed as she stepped back and looked out at the crowd cheering her onward.
Clinton’s younger sister, Shelby, was also there.
And when Shelby votes in her first general election this November, she will have the opportunity to vote for her big sister, a candidate who is just three years older than her.