Andrew Janz has raised millions of dollars for his campaign as a Democrat running for Congress in the Central Valley. But the 34-year-old is used to big numbers: After working his way through undergraduate, graduate and law school, he owes about $300,000 in student debt — more than his mortgage.
Janz is part of a groundswell of younger politicians who are on the front lines of America’s student debt crisis. Seven congressional candidates running in California this year owe at least $10,000, according to a Bay Area News Group analysis of financial disclosures filed with the House ethics office. In addition, seven members of the state’s congressional delegation, all of whom were elected within the last six years, are still paying off thousands of dollars in student loans. Three others reported being in debt for their kids’ education.
That means roughly one out of every six Californians on the ballot for Congress in November owe student debt — together, they’re more than $1.1 million in the red.
“Our future generations are definitely being robbed of any meaningful start to their lives,” said Janz, taking a break from shaking hands at a recent Democratic Party meeting in Oakland. “Instead of being able to reinvest that money into the economy, I’m paying off predators.”
As more candidates who have personally experienced the burden of student debt run for office and win, they’re raising the likelihood that Congress will act to help struggling graduates, observers say. They’re also rewriting the rules of political campaigns, revealing the same sort of personal and financial hardships faced by younger voters and families struggling to put their kids through college.
“Having debt, which normally might be a liability in a traditional campaign, today helps many voters identify with a candidate,” said David McCuan, a politics professor at Sonoma State University.
Student debt levels have skyrocketed in recent years, as the cost of college has risen and wages have stagnated. More than half of California students graduate with debt, and the average student owes $21,382 at graduation, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, who owes just under $100,000 for his undergraduate and law degrees, has made student debt a focus since he was first elected in 2012. The 37-year-old has introduced legislation that would double tax deductions for student loan interest and forgive more debt for graduates who go into public service jobs. He’s traveled the country to talk with young people about how to solve the crisis.
“It’s personal for me, because I’ve seen so many people I’ve grown up with chase that dream of being the first in their family to go to college… and come out in financial quicksand,” Swalwell said. He and his wife Brittany are still renting instead of buying a home — largely because the loan payments have made it impossible for them to save up a down payment.
As he’s pushed for reform, Swalwell has encountered resistance from some older colleagues in Congress who got their degrees at a time when college was far more affordable.
“When people in generations above us see millennials with so much debt, they’re asking, ‘what the hell are you guys doing?’” Swalwell said. “They say, ‘we worked through college and you guys have these big bills.’”
He tries to explain that it’s a different world for today’s graduates. College attendance costs have risen steeply over the last few decades: In the UC system, for example, the average annual tuition and fees for undergraduate Californians in 2016 was 20 times the cost in 1975. But so far, none of Swalwell’s student loan bills have passed the House.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed billions of dollars in cuts to student aid in its 2018 and 2019 budgets. An initial version of the GOP tax reform bill would have eliminated the student loan deduction, but it was restored during negotiations. On Wednesday, the administration proposed new rules that would make it harder for students defrauded by for-profit colleges to get loan forgiveness.
Electing more people who have personally experienced student debt could help tilt the conversation in graduates’ favor, said Natalia Abrams, the executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a Los Angeles advocacy group.
“It’s been really great to see people who understand the issue get elected,” Abrams said. “Eight years ago, it was only backbenchers and small advocacy groups talking about this — now it’s on everyone’s lips in an election year.” Debt-free college has already become a rallying cry for several potential Democratic presidential candidates, she pointed out.
For many graduates mired in debt, taking months off work to run for office just isn’t feasible. Janz is still working at his day job as a Fresno prosecutor, even as his campaign against Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, has received national attention.
And in the most important races, party leaders tend to prefer wealthier candidates who can pay for their campaigns out of their own pocketbooks. Only two of the California congressional candidates with student debt who got through their primaries, Janz and Democratic businessman T.J. Cox, are running in districts that are considered among the state’s most competitive.
But some candidates have turned their own student loans into a positive political talking point. Sam Jammal, a 36-year-old Democratic congressional candidate who didn’t make it out of the primary for a competitive Southern California seat, readily discussed his roughly $60,000 in debt at debates, campaign events and on social media. That helped him appeal to millennials and differentiated him from his millionaire opponents, he said.
“People need to know you walked in their shoes so you won’t forget them,” said Jammal, an attorney who worked for a civil rights group after law school instead of taking a job at a high-paying private firm. “When we talk about why young voters don’t engage in elections, it’s because we don’t talk about these issues affecting their pocketbooks.”
All of the California incumbents with student debt are Democrats, but there are candidates from both parties who are still paying off their loans. Andrew Grant, a Republican former Marine officer running against Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, owes more than $30,000 for his MBA degree. He said he would consider supporting bills like Swalwell’s to help support graduates, but was especially interested in reducing the cost of college by cutting waste at public universities and encouraging more students to go to vocational schools instead of expensive four-year universities.
“Taking on debt made me think about what I’m paying for and and what I’ll receive,” said Grant, 46. “Let’s ask ourselves what we’re really getting from the rising cost of education.”
No Republican members of Congress have signed on to Swalwell’s legislation, and the GOP House leadership is pushing a separate bill that would simplify student aid procedures but cut some loan forgiveness programs.
Outside of California, more candidates around the country are also running with student loans, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal New Yorker who attracted national attention after defeating the fourth highest ranking Democrat in the House. The 28-year-old, who owes between $15,000 and $50,000, has proposed forgiving all student debt in the U.S.
The conversation around helping students crushed by debt is only likely to get louder as more young people jump into politics, said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, who owes more than $50,000 for his Yale law degree.
“When you go through that process, you are more empathetic to the anxiety it causes for families,” he said. “It’s a huge burden limiting the kind of life young people can have.”
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