Even in high school in Rockville, Timothy Hwang was involved in politics and activism, from serving as the student representative on the Montgomery County board of education to founding a volunteer organization to help the homeless.
But now Hwang, 20, already is taking on a bigger challenge.
The Princeton University student formed the National Youth Association in 2010 to lobby Capitol Hill on issues important to young people.
The association is serving as a voice for citizens who often are not given a seat at the table when policies affecting them are discussed, Hwang said.
With 90 volunteers, the association represents 100 organizations with more than 750,000 members combined.
This year, the group has formed a super political action committee in order to give it more political clout. With help from grassroots small donors contributing $5 to $15, the NYA’s super PAC may not raise as much as the super PACS founded by billionaires who singlehandedly can write multimillion dollar checks, but it will help, Hwang said.
Campaign fundraising is necessary to be taken seriously in the political process, he said.
“At least in Washington, people are willing to engage the youth on some level, but the level some want to stop at is in creating some kind of youth council or some kind of press release to tout having the youth involved,” Hwang said. “But it’s not real engagement like they have with the NRA or the Sierra Club. That’s real policymaking engagement, and that’s where we want to be.”
Although some politicians claimed to care about the national debt because of the future toll on young people, those same would-be victims were not heard from during the debates, Hwang said.
What young people care most about is the rising cost of a college education, the ability to obtain affordable student loans and finding employment after graduation from high school or college, he said.
One of the challenges for any youth-focused political organization is to find ways to convert young voters into permanent voters, said Thomas Schaller, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Although young voters made up an unprecedented share of the electorate in 2008, the number was back to traditional levels in 2010.
“Young people tend to turn out in higher numbers in presidential years than non-presidential years,” said Schaller, who was not familiar with Hwang’s organization.
One strategy might be to stress that while people younger than 30 have less disposable income and are less able to make political contributions, their votes count as much as those of the older generations, which levels the playing field, Schaller said.
In general, it’s no real surprise that issues affecting older voters, such as Medicare and Social Security, get such prominent attention because their numbers are higher at the polls, said Irwin Morris, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. But those safety net issues also come with a large price tag, he said.
Involved four years ago
Hwang, a Montgomery County native, was active in the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
That year, Obama beat McCain, 66-32 percent among those younger than 30, and a Gallup poll in late April shows Obama leading Republican candidate Mitt Romney by about 35 points with the same age group.
Although the politicians work to capture the youth vote, Hwang sees his organization as keeping on the table the issues important to youth.
Christopher Barclay, a Montgomery County school board member, said it makes sense that Hwang, who served as the board’s 2009-10 student member when he was a senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, is involved in such a large undertaking.
During a tough budget cycle for the school system, Hwang stood up for students, while still gaining the respect of his colleagues, Barclay said.
“Tim had a way of being able to speak the truth of students to us as adults, and keep us focused on having these very difficult conversations in a way that was civil and productive,” Barclay said.
“I think all of us had to take pause and give a lot of respect to him in being able to stand up to us and stand up for students in that environment.”
In his own, very public way, Hwang is taking student advocacy to the next level.
The NYA plans to spend the money it raises on the 2012 presidential race and also on several congressional campaigns, he said.
An overwhelming edge in the youth vote for Obama helped him win the presidency and is seen as an important part of his re-election effort, Hwang said.
The NYA seeks to represent people younger than 25, and although many of them do not affiliate with a political party, that does not mean they are uninterested in politics, he said.
In Maryland, the 421,000 registered voters 25 and younger are overwhelming registered as Democrats — 216,500 compared with 96,200 as Republicans. The rest are registered with other parties or as independents.
However, the Maryland GOP does not intend to surrender the youth vote to the Democrats, said Maryland Republican Party spokesman David Ferguson.
“Young voters will be extremely critical this election cycle, not just because they vote, but they’re also our main volunteer base,” Ferguson said. “They make up campaign staffers, campaign volunteers and interns. The youth are extremely important.”
Although the number of young Democrats outnumber young Republicans, “the energy factor and the showing up to the ballot box are important. The Republicans are more engaged and informed,” Ferguson said.
Rod Snyder, president of the Young Democrats of America, agreed about the energy factor, but said the advantage rests with the Democrats.
“Obama has been more aggressive with youth outreach than any president in recent memory,” he said.
Snyder, who knows Hwang from the Young Democrats, said the association can play an important role.
“I’ve kind of grown tired of the narrative [that] young people have checked out,” Snyder said. “You’ve got young people very much involved, wanting to be involved. Any form of youth organizing is healthy for democracy.
“He’s done a nice job of recruiting them,” Snyder said of Hwang.
Staff Writers Daniel Leaderman and Jen Bondeson contributed to this report.