When 17-year-old Dhruvak Mirani knocks on doors to promote his campaign for a seat on the Howard County Democratic Central Committee, he says people who answer are usually excited to see a candidate who appears enthusiastic and ambitious.
But sometimes he’s met with frowns. People also say he’s too young.
The teenager doesn’t argue back, he says. First he hears them out. Then he tells his story and pitches his vision and goals. By the end, he thinks he’s at least able to change their perception of him as a legitimate candidate.
Mirani is the youngest candidate on the ballot in Maryland’s July 19th primary election. He’s running for a seat on the Howard County Democratic Central Committee, a county branch of the Maryland Democratic Party that supports democratic candidates in the general election by training volunteers to help get out the vote, engaging local communities in political activities, and encouraging Democratic residents to vote on election day, which is on November 8.
Of the 3,778,905 registered voters in Maryland, 472,021—or about 12.5%—are between the ages 17 and 24, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections. In Howard County, where Mirani is running, 13.3% of registered voters are between the ages 17 and 24. And in neighboring Baltimore County and Baltimore City, youth between 17 and 24 make up 12.8% and 8.8% of registered voters, respectively.
During every gubernatorial primary, Howard County Democrats elect 20 central committee members representing three legislative districts. There are no age restrictions to run for the central committee, unlike many other seats on the ballot.
Mirani is convinced his age puts him at an advantage when speaking to younger voters and volunteers and hopes he can get more young people involved in politics. “I don’t think being young is necessarily about your age. It’s more of a mindset, a spirit, an ethos,” Mirani said. “It’s just what our politics should be all about: ambition, hope, changing the status quo.”
Bloc by Block recently spoke with Mirani, a recent graduate from Howard County’s Glenelg High School, about how he gained an interest in politics, his views on education policies, how other young people in the Baltimore region—whether of voting age or not—can get politically involved, and more. The interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
Editorial Note: Bloc By Block is not endorsing any candidates in this year’s elections.
What made you interested in running to be a member of the Howard County Democratic Central Committee?
The spring before I began my first year at Glenelg, there was actually a hate crime committed by students who were graduating seniors. And it was racist, anti-semitic, homophobic vandalism on school grounds—some of it directed towards our Black principal at the time.
That was scary and really disheartening. So that’s what kind of brought me into getting involved to change the school environment. I was elected class president, as a student of color in this predominantly white school. I co-founded the Young Democrats Club in a group of precincts that actually voted for Donald Trump in 2016. And I became a very vocal advocate for educational equity.
What’s the biggest difference between running for a seat on the Democratic Central Committee and your experience as a student leader and activist?
What I realized very early on in this campaign is that there are power structures specifically constructed to keep young people or new candidates out. You can see that through things like fundraising. You can see that through things like endorsements. I really want to [a political system] where political participation is incentivized, not disincentivized. That’s not where we are.
People are willing to engage young people in politics, people are willing to listen, but in the electoral system there are so many systemic barriers to winning an election. The best example of that is how old our elected officials are. It’s universally known that our country is run by people in their 60s and 70s. That’s a really big problem.
Can you explain in more detail how you can connect with the youth in ways other candidates might not be able to?
So, the Democratic Central Committee is a group of 20 volunteers who are elected by every Democrat in our county. [Their] job is basically to support Democratic candidates, elevate Democratic issues and serve as the grassroots base of the party.
I think that the whole mission starts with uplifting young people and bringing young people into the conversation. We can do that by building bridges with the Young Democrat groups in high school. Where these groups don’t exist, we can find students who want to start that. That’s another really big advantage of being a young person who knows how to connect, who knows how to really engage young people in issues that I think are nearly universally shared. [I can] bring those values that a lot of young people share to the forefront of the conversation.
I also really want to engage Democrats in Howard County with education issues that really do matter. We can all agree on getting community members focused on common sense ideas—things like inclusive classroom curricula, equitable hiring practices, [and] ending the school to prison pipeline.
What do you think the stakes are in the Maryland Gubernatorial Democratic primary? What advice do you have for young people who are eligible to vote in Maryland?
I think the stakes are high. I urge any young person who is eligible to vote in this election to vote for Secretary John King. As a former teacher and US Secretary of Education, he has a track record of listening to students and standing up for students.
Education is, I think, the issue that is really at the foundation of all our other issues in Maryland. I think having an educator as governor will do so much good. One thing that I’ve thought about a lot in the gubernatorial race is how John sometimes says that he told his students to run for office, to get involved, to take on that kind of responsibility. Hearing that made me feel more confident about doing what I’m doing right now.
You recently told WYPR that you think “education is inherently political.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
There are so many choices that go into how schools function that are political by their very nature. What is being taught is a political choice. It reflects power dynamics. Who is teaching, and are the teachers reflective of the people being taught? That’s a deliberate decision that reflects a political decision.
What do you think about the education system in Baltimore City, where the mayor and the governor appoint school board members instead of having an election?
Every school board should be elected. I don’t think appointed or hybrid boards of education ever culminate in the results that we’re looking for. A perfect example of that is the massive dysfunction we saw played out in Prince George’s County as a result of that hybrid board.
Elected boards are necessary. Mayoral control in many other jurisdictions is misguided. The way that we get more people to engage on education issues is by making sure that it’s a part of the electoral process. Otherwise, it takes away not just that incentive for political participation and for civic engagement, but it also takes away that direct representation.
There is no real reason for an appointed member of a board of education to serve the population, they don’t have any measure of accountability. They don’t have any obligation to serve a constituency because there’s no consequence. There’s no check mechanism, if that makes sense.
What are your thoughts on voter age restrictions?
I think lowering the voting age is definitely worth exploring. There have been many reasonable proposals to lower it to 16 years old.
The voting age and the age for running for any office should be the same. There is no reason why you should have to be 35 years old to run for president in this country, 30 years old to run for the United States Senate, 25 years old to run for Congress, 21 years old to run for the Maryland House of Delegates. If someone is old enough to vote, they should be old enough to run. Age restrictions past the voting age on running for office is just another way to keep power structures aligned with the way they’ve been historically.
What advice do you have for young people who aren’t yet eligible to vote?
Find the Board of Education candidates in your county, in your city, whose views align with yours. Go volunteer with them, go knock [on] doors with them. Go to the polls with them and hand out literature. You can do so much in politics without even being able to vote.
I’ve met extraordinary youth activists, extraordinary organizers, who have accomplished so much in politics before being able to vote. Lots of young people gravitate towards national politics because it’s what gets the most coverage and that’s what we’re most familiar with. It’s what is most reinforced in our minds by school and the media. But local politics affects our lives so much more rigorously, so much more frequently, and in so many more [personally] than politics on the national level.
Finding even your Board of Education candidates and supporting them and volunteering for them, making calls for them, can be transformative for your community.
What advice do you have for other young people who might want to run for a political office one day?
Be true to yourself and your own values. Don’t ever feel pressured into doing something you don’t want to do. Live your values through your campaign.
Also, some people say that to be in politics, you have to have really thick skin. I understand why people say that because when you are in any kind of politics—no matter how local it is, no matter how unimportant it may seem to some—you’re going to get criticism. Sometimes hatred. Sometimes worse. It is my opinion that it’s good not to have thick skin. To be able to take that hate, take that criticism, and respond with an enormous amount of empathy.
Radical love is a skill, and I think that’s what our politics should be about.
Editorial Disclaimer: Reporting for this story was provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and we thank them for their support. However, the findings and conclusions presented in this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.