24-Year-Old Nick Troiano is Running for Congress & Wants You to Consider a Different Political Philosophy
It’s not every day that you see a 24-year-old running for Congress in this era of American history. It’s also not every day that people suggest getting the younger generation involved in high level politics. In fact, you could argue that our government philosophy and political system (as it functions in reality, not in theory) perpetuates the opposite. Millennials have grown up in a period of decline and of war – decline in exports, political involvement, faith in our government, employment opportunities, our education system as it functions in actuality, (arguably) the health of our environment, the individual’s voice versus the corporation’s voice…The list goes on. They have also seen one of the oldest Congresses this country has had in years, with the average age of a Congressman or woman being 57, and average term being 9 years. This is, however, no time to give up. It’s no time to be complacent. But if we Millennials have not seen anything noticeably and successfully different in politics, why would we venture to think things could be different, realistically different than they are?
Well, Nick Troiano wants us to grab onto that idea, maybe one that has been sitting dormant in our minds for quite some time, that things have the very real possibility of being different, of being more functional, of improving. Frustrated with the status quo in our political system and the continual gridlock in Washington, Troiano has decided to run as an Independent candidate in the 10th Congressional district of Pennsylvania. He will be 25 by the time November rolls around, and he is currently collecting his 3,500 signatures to be able to run as a third party candidate. Nick is quite optimistic about the possibility, and has a positive outlook on the potential for our political system to start functioning again through compromise and increasing movement to what he calls the “sensible center.” Running on a platform, which focuses on political reform, fiscal responsibility, environmental sustainability, and economic mobility, Troiano has concrete ideas to move these issues forward, and he’s out to share them. Nick is not accepting special interest contributions, and therefore not tied to any special interest group’s goals or mission. With roughly three-quarters of his district open to the idea of an Independent candidate, Nick is in good shape to be in the running and to stick to his ideologies if elected, because he’s answering only to his district and to himself.
Nick took the time out of his hectic campaign schedule to chat with us about his platform, how he feels about our current political structure, his political philosophy, and what possible solutions he has to issues of fiscal responsibility, economic mobility, and environmental sustainability. A huge thank you to Nick and his staff! Questions written by myself and Penny Pfalzer.
Sensible Reason: So I wanted to kick off with the fact that you’re running as an Independent. I’m curious why you chose not to seek a major party endorsement to try to change the status quo from the inside. How do you believe your candidacy as an independent will be viable given the number of enrolled Democrats and Republicans in your district?
Nick Troiano: Well, I think nationally, according Gallup, there are more Independents now than there ever have been. And voters, 42% are now identifying as Independent. In Pennsylvania, because we have a closed primary system where Independents are locked out of participating, many are forced to have to register one way or another. So, while many people may be registered as Democrats or Republicans, they may not be very loyal party members. So I want to make that point. But in general, why I decided to run as an Independent is because I believe candidates can either be part of the system or they can be part of the solution. I don’t think one can run through major party and accept special interest contributions, and expect to change the way things work in Washington. My argument to voters is that if I’m elected as an Independent and not accepting special interest contributions, I’ll be able to represent them rather than my party or campaign contributors. And to your question of viability, there is more dissatisfaction now with both parties and our political institutions than in recent history, and I think people are ready for an alternative option.
SR: And speaking of an alternative option… Could you tell me more about the process of running as an Independent candidate, especially considering the fact that you’re not accepting contributions from special interest groups?
Nick: Well, the process in Pennsylvania is that non-major party candidates have to gather 2% of the last highest vote-getters’ vote total and signatures to turn into the state. So for us, it’s about 3,500 signatures that we need to collect from registered voters and turn in by August 1st. So we and a team of volunteers are working on that effort to qualify for the ballot, and we’re confident we’ll be able to do that. In terms of the way that we fund the campaign, I describe it as citizen-funded, so we’re soliciting contributions from anyone who can vote, not any corporation, lobbyist, union, or PAC. You know, there’s already too much money in our political system and I think our elected leaders should be free to lead and not be beholden to the folks who fund their campaign.
SR: So I wonder – Do you believe there should be term limits, and if so, what would you propose for the House and the Senate?
Nick: I’m not a proponent of term limits. Although I sympathize with people who are, because we have many career politicians that have been there too long. My preferred solution is to make elctions much more competitive and leave the decision to the voters, whether to return someone to Washington or not. And I think we can increase the competitiveness of our elections first by changing the way that we draw Congressional districts. Mine is, like many others in Pennsylvania, is very Gerrymandered to protect the incumbent party. I think if we were to use an independent redistricting commission, we could draw districts that are much more competitive, and therefore, lessen how many career politicians there are. But another change that could occur on a federal level is ending the practice of allowing elected leaders, or anyone running of office, from rolling over their campaign funds from one election cycle to the next, becuase they’re able to amass large war chests that discourage people from running against them, and make it very hard for any challenger to win. So I think if we were to require candidates and elected officials to spend what they raised or return it to their donors, we would be able to level the playing field at the start of each new election cycle.
SR: So what do you think about contribution caps?
Nick: Well, for individuals and even PACs, there is currently a cap. The Supreme Court, of course, recently removed the aggregate cap, but I support the caps that are in place. I also support a system of voluntary public financing, where if candidates limited themselves to accepting small donor, individual contributions, they would be able to qualify for federal matching funds. And furthermore, through a rebate system, everyone would receive a voucher to be able to give to the candidate of their choice in each election. So that is the primary campaign finance reform that I would support.
SR: In terms of the current voting system… In Virginia and Pennsylvania, we’ve seen some legislative proposals in the past to abandon the electoral college, with the reasoning that the winner-take-all style defeats fundamental principles of democracy. What are your thoughts on the electoral college?
Nick: I support the current interstate compact that is being worked on as a method of effectively rendering the electoral college as irrelevant in our presidential system, whereby if, the number of states who agree to it, their vote totals exceed the 270 to win, then this agreement would go into place that whoever wins the popular vote, states would award their electoral votes too, so it would essentially become a popular vote system, and I support that. I think the electoral college is archaic and undemocratic.
SR: In that regard, do you think one of the solutions to reforming our political system would be a multi-party system or that no one is affiliated with any party?
Nick: At this point, I think we are a two party system, and our two party system has worked in the past when both parties have decided to work together. And my view is that in order to get that to happen again, we don’t need to end the two parties, we need a movement that can transcend them. I think that can come in the form of an independent movement that elects more Independents to Congress, who in a sufficient number could help control the balance of power between both parties and bring the debate and discussion back towards the center rather than the political extremes. And ultimately that more moderate movement might be absorbed by one of the parties, who will respond to the electoral incentive of winning over those voters. So we need a shock to the system in the form of an independent movement, but I don’t think we need to reinvent the two-party system we have today. That may happen over a long period of time, but in the meantime, I’m not a proponent for multi-party or even a third party.
SR: So you mentioned one of the parties possibly absorbing a more moderate stance as a result of this movement on certain issues. I was wondering if you think that would really be sustainable, given the way politics have been for a long time now – polarized during elections. If the candidates look too much alike, voters can get confused or become uninterested… although you could also argue that people can’t see the difference between most candidates now…
Nick: The American people themselves have not polarized, [their] choices have. And that’s due to structural reasons, because of our primary system, our redistricting system, our campaign finance system…so if we can reform these institutions in our electoral process, I believe that it’ll produce more moderate candidates who are able to win elections, because that’s where the people are. Right now, our system is distorting the reflection of the American public at large because despite how it may seem that the two parties are warring against each other, they’re actually in cahoots. Because keeping us divided is a way that special interest groups raise money, it’s a way for media to drive their ratings and make money, it’s a way for politicians to stay in office. So all the incentives right now are to pull us apart. Whereas I think the American people at large would like to pull together and solve some of the problems that our country faces.
SR: On that note, you do talk a lot about political gridlock in Washington and how we deserve better. So how would you plan on changing politics in Washington? And what’s going to make your promise of change different from, say, President Obama’s in 2008, which we saw didn’t pan out exactly as promised…?
Nick: [laughs] Right. Well, President Obama talked the walk. I’d like to think I’m also walking the walk. Like I said, in order to change the way that Washington governs, we have to change the way our leaders are elected, because politicians are single-minded seekers of re-election and will respond to the electoral incentives in place. So if you run as independent and you’re only accepting contributions from individuals, I think that is a recipe for being able to change the way one serves as an elected officer, so I think that position reads differently than any other candidate or elected official out there right now.
SR: If you were to envision our future political system, would you prefer that people couldn’t accept special interest contributions whatsoever? Because it does influence the decisions they make once they’re elected?
Nick: I think the ideal reform is that the only people that should be funding candidates are people who can actually vote for them, to boil it all down. No one else should be influencing elections but the people who will be that leaders’ constituents.
SR: I respect that. It’s refreshing to hear someone in politics say that…. So your non-profit organization, The Can Kicks Back, has been really successful and wrapped up a tour not too long ago. Do you think Millennials are really ready to solve the nation’s debt crisis?
Nick: I think we have a great incentive to want to. These issues, our rising debt or growing carbon emissions, are those that will disproportionately affect young future Americans, and the longer we delay, the longer young people will have to pay. If we delay changes to social security, we can expect to pay a higher payroll tax and receive less benefits when the trust fund runs out 20 years from now, for example. So in all of these instances, the incentives point to finding some common ground and compromising now, rather than waiting until later when it’s going to be much more disruptive and painful to make these policy changes. I think by and large the young people that I’ve talked to through The Can Kicks Back have a good understanding of the problem…but we haven’t seen a high level of engagement because people, as confirmed by a Harvard poll [of Millenials] put out yesterday, don’t see traditional politics as a way of making a difference. So the apathy we see is quite rational. Young people are trying to give back and make a positive impact in other ways than through direct political activism. That’s what I’m out to change, because I think the big opportunity we have to create change is through traditional politics, and by disengaging, we are only exacerbating the problem because we’re seeding more influence to those who don’t have our best interests in mind.
SR: And on the note of best interests in mind and the debt crisis, let’s switch over to the fiscal responsibility portion of your platform. The largest demographic in Pike County is between the ages of 50-59 years old. Do you feel you are aware and adequately prepared to recognize this demographic’s future needs? Social security, pensions, and retirements are weighing pretty heavily on the minds of this age group, and in your platform you mention restraining spending through reforming and strengthening social insurance programs. In addition to meeting their needs, what do you feel are the major issues with the current structure of these types of programs?
Nick: Well, understandably, people who are in or near retirement who have paid into these programs all their lives and are now counting on them being there are adamant in their views that changes not be made. And I understand that; I respect that, and that’s something I would fight for if I’m elected. I think the changes that need to be made would focus any impact on those in the future to a large extent. We have to recognize that the path we’re on is not sustainable, that the largest growth in government spending in the future is going to occur within these major retirement programs, that they need reform, but that we can make immediate changes and phase them in gradually so that people who are in or near retirement now are not significantly and negatively impacted. I think to a large extent older Americans care a lot about the legacy they’re leaving. I don’t think any grandparent would want to leave their grandchild with 50,000+ in debt, but that’s exactly what we’re doing on a collective level. I think the greatest generation, the baby boomer generation, care a lot about the legacy they’re leaving for future generations, and we have to act now to ensure that just like they benefited, the next generation has greater or equal opportunity to succeed economically.
SR: Just to clarify, what is your position of social security and medicare?
Nick: Well, we’re going to be releasing more details, white papers on both healthcare and social security in the weeks to come. On social security, which is basically a large math problem, we have to consider things like our retirement age. People are living longer, and therefore, drawing out benefits longer, so indexing the age of retirement to life expectancy seems like a sensible change to me. At the same time, we should think about creating a minimum benefit level to protect those who are most vulnerable and need to consider boosting benefits for those at the bottom and questioning at the same time why Bill Gates or Warren Buffet are getting a social security check. So there are five or six different tweaks I think we could make to put the program on a sustainable path without having to cut benefits for those who are in or near retirement.
SR: So are you suggesting that if someone makes above a certain amount of money annually that they shouldn’t necessarily receive social security benefits?
Nick: I think that’s one reform that ought to be considered. I think we also ought to consider raising the taxable wage cap. Right now, people who make [roughly] $114,000 more are taxed on that additional income. We used to collect taxes on about 90% of all wages when social security was implemented. We’re far below that now, so maybe we should raise the cap to get back to that 90% level. So on both the revenue and benefits side, there are a bunch of adjustments I think we could make to put that program on sound fiscal footing. And like I said, these are examples of changes I am open to. I will be releasing a “here’s what I think we should do” plan on social security within the next couple months.
SR: Looking forward to reading that in more detail.
Nick: One thing I might mention too…An adjustment that got bipartisan support in the president’s last budget was making a technical change to increase the accuracy of how we measure inflation, known as chained CPI, which would simply, and very modestly, grow benefits at a slower rate, so next year’s social security check would still increase, but not by as much as it’s scheduled to now because we are using a more accurate level of inflation. That would have saved tens of billions of dollars during the next decade and helped extend the life of social security, and is an example of something both Republicans and Democrats supported, but unfortunately, the president removed it from this year’s budget. It’s actually an example of a political maneuver that wasn’t really in the best interest of the program.
SR: What are your thoughts on our current tax code? How do you feel it could be handled better? (I’m assuming you probably think it can be…)
Nick: [Chuckles]. Our tax code is antiquated and complicated, and it’s not serving the purpose it should. The cost of compliance, the complexity of it, is actually a drag on the economy right now, so I’m a large supporter of tax reform and tax simplification. One proposal that I’m interested in that was developed by my economic advis0r Larry Kotlikoff is called “The Common Sense Tax,” which you can learn about online, but it would essentially replace our current tax system. One piece of it that is most appealing to me is re-positioning our corporate tax, which right now is one of the highest in the world. It’s keeping a lot of corporate money overseas, rather than being invested here at home, so by re-positioning it on an individual level on corporate earnings to shareholders, we would be able to collect more tax revenue and provide an incentive for those companies to bring their trillions of dollars of profits back home to be reinvested in our economy. That’s one example of a tax reform I support. But in general, I think we can simplify the code; we can lower rates for everyone, and we can raise some additional revenue, not only through economic growth, but by closing a lot of the loopholes that right now benefit people who are well-off and companies that are well-connected.
SR: So on the note of economic growth through taxes, what is your stance on legalizing controlled substances, such as marijuana, for tax revenue purposes?
Nick: I’m still studying the issue to be honest with you, and I haven’t produced a position on that yet.
SR: In your platform you also focus on economic mobility. You talk about having pre-k more widely available. Pike County’s second largest demographic is aged 40-49, and undoubtedly have strong opinions about the Common Core Standards in children’s schooling. What’s your opinion on the Common Core Standard in American schools, and what leads you to that conclusion?
Nick: That’s also an issue I’m still studying, but in general, I believe that we should have robust national standards for education that is symmetric with what we believe productive and entrepreneurial skills citizens should have in the global economy of the 21st Century, but leave the development of curricula to state and local governments. I agree with the proponents of Common Core in the setting of robust national standards, and I can understand the concerns the teachers in my district, for example, who are skeptical, I’d say at best, and school board members, too, of curriculum being imposed by the federal government, which I don’t feel is the role of the federal government. In general we know that education is a key to future economic growth in our country. We need to be doing a much better job of not only graduating great portions of Americans from high school and closing the achievement gap between those of different backgrounds and ethnicities, but also making sure we’re producing students who are prepared for the jobs of the future, which I think means an education system that is more focused on creative thinking and critical thinking than sheer memorization of facts and information that we assess through all sorts of standardized testing.
SR: So what do you think the federal government’s role should be in education?
Nick: In general, I think the federal government should set national standards and goals, which should be there to facilitate sharing of best practices across states, and in addition to identifying those best practices, incentivize their adoption and scaling, which I think programs, for example, like Race to the Top does. That’s the sort of model of federal government involvement in education that I’m supportive of, and leaving to state and local governments the control over exact methods and materials used to actually educate students.
SR: In addition to expanding pre-k access and getting involved very early in terms of education, what other ways do you think the United States could close the achievement gap and return to our position as a global leader in education?
Nick: I think one way of closing that achievement gap is better engaging students as they’re going through the educational process by making it more of an engaging process…and providing greater support structures and extracurricular activities that keep students involved in school. I think the primary driver of the dropout crisis is that our schools are failing as engaging communities where students want to remain. So in general, that’s one area I would focus on.
SR: This is a pretty tough question, but this is something that pops into my head often when I think about education in the US. A lot of schools that are in low income areas don’t even really have the possibility of having after-school programs because they just don’t have the budget. They sometimes don’t even have enough of a budget to have adequate materials for their classrooms. I have friends who are currently doing Teach For America, and some of their high school students can’t read above a the level of a child in middle school. It’s a pretty daunting task, education, in and of itself….
Nick: I totally agree with you, and I don’t profess to be an expert in it. I know that a large issue is also the equity in how we fund schools. You know, in Pennsylvania, through property tax, you have areas that are more affluent that are better able to support their schools than other areas.
SR: Yeah, definitely. What I’m getting at is if that would be something you’d be open to – a policy that might work to distribute funds to areas that, say where most residents there are renters so property tax revenue is much lower, or to allowing students to choose their schools?
Nick: Yeah, I agree with you that we need to find an more equitable way to distribute resources to fund education, but we’ve also seen that we can spend more money per capita and not increase performance.
SR: That’s very true.
Nick: So a large focus has to be on teacher quality, quantitative measurements of what student achievement is, showing bad teachers the door, [and] providing greater rewards for our good teachers. I think through a more rigorous evaluation process, we can also increase the quality of education, too. We could do that better now than we were ever positioned to do in the past. I think another key part of my platform is about protecting school choice and innovation in education. I think we should be encouraging of, not discouraging of, other models of education, and the viability of school choice so parents and students can make choices about what they feel is best for their situation, just like we’re able to make that choice in most other aspects of our lives, but do so in a way that doesn’t undermine what is the backbone of public education.
SR: I lastly wanted to talk to you about the piece of your platform on environmental sustainability. You’re quoted on your website saying, “We must be good stewards of environment without compromising thoughtful economic development and growth.” That being said, what is your stance on hydrofracking, which is a pretty prominent environmental issue in your state right now? In your opinion, do the benefits outweigh the detriments, or would you agree that it’s a short-term solution to a long-term energy problem, and figuratively is kicking the can down to the next generation?
Nick: I generally think that we have more to gain through developing our natural resources. I think the safe and sustainable development of natural gas provides an economic benefit. It provides an environmental benefit. It also provides a security benefit in helping us to become more self-reliant on domestic sources of our fuel. So for those reasons, I think we should take advantage of those resources that are here, while realizing this isn’t going to be a silver bullet to our energy or environmental challenges. To me, natural gas is going to be a bridge to the future, and that is why I support using a portion of revenues generated through natural gas development to reinvest in research and development of clean energy, and taking other steps to support development of other clean energy fuels as well. It would not be wise for us to not take advantage of these resources.
SR: Just to be clear, you’re saying despite the environmental detriments associated with hydrofracking, such as water pollution, at least in the short-term, it is a positive alternative?
Nick: Well, it’s not clear exactly what all the environmental detriments are; the EPA is still in the midst of their study. There are, of course, arguments and evidence on both sides of the issue, but I wouldn’t say it’s been conclusive yet. And I think we can be confident that we can find and scale safe ways of extracting this resource that doesn’t impose environmental hazards. As you know, natural gas is a much cleaner fuel than coal, which I hope natural gas can help displace.
SR: In terms of making more strides towards clean energy use, what are major areas you think we could tackle as a nation to promote sustainability and ultimately become more a more environmentally sustainable country, beyond moves towards higher usage of natural gas?
Nick: I think this is a free market idea: putting a price on pollution, a carbon price. This will disincentivize polluting and incentivize by shifting taxes that are otherwise placed on working, saving, and investing. So that’s one idea that I think can generate bipartisan support that is a wise idea through tax reform of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Beyond that, I think we can implement a reform system of what is described as competitive deployment incentives to help bring clean energy sources to market, but not necessarily subsidize them just based on sheer quantity but on how the companies that are marketing them are able to bring down their cost, to incentivize bringing different alternatives to market and making them more competitive to compete against existing sources of dirtier energy. I think the Defense Department, in its acquisition and procurement, can play a role in the research, development, and bringing to market of those other clean energies, too. I think we have much more to do in making sure that we are inspiring and supporting the next generation of clean energy entrepreneurs out there, too. Those are some of the approaches I would take.
SR: So we’ve covered a lot of ground, but I have a lingering question. Beyond running as an independent, you’re very young in comparison to members of our Congress, so given your age, what advantage do you think you have over current members of Congress who have lived through different times and likely have a different perspective on many of the issues we’ve talked about?
Nick: Well, I don’t have any strings attached [laughs]. I’m not beholden to the existing reality of how politics works, or even traditional political ideas that are out there. I’d like to think that as a younger person, I can bring new ideas and a new approach to politics that is sorely needed because we have one of the oldest and longest serving Congresses ever right now.
SR: Having no strings attached, how would you plan to win the support of your colleagues in Congress if elected?
Nick: That’s a good question. Well, my grand idea is that there needs to be a new caucus from the middle out, rather than from the extremes. And that’s something that over the next few election cycles can grow, in terms of new people being elected and joining it, and in terms of existing members defecting their party to join it. What I would call a sort of solutions caucus. In that sense, I would be in search of future colleagues who are willing to take their political marching orders from the people rather than their party leadership, and working hard to identify, recruit, support other young, independent-minded people who might be interested in running in 2016.
SR: I had one last question I wanted to ask you… I read on your website, be it a goal or a vision that you would like to have, next time around, more independents running in districts where it’s viable for them to run. I wondered if it would be directed toward Millennials only, or if it really wouldn’t matter in terms of age?
Nick: My focus would definitely be supporting young, independent-minded candidates in future election cycles, which in open primary states might be Democrats or Republicans too. Because in open primaries, members have to be responsive to their entire electorate as everyone can vote in either party’s primary. But I think that a key part of making politics work again is going to be a new generation of leaders stepping up to fix it. I think the Millennial generation is uniquely positioned to do that because we are more pragmatic and solutions-oriented, and because we have a bigger stake in getting things to work again because of the sustainability challenges that our country faces. So I think it’s a good thing for young people, and a good thing for all people, if there were more Millennials in Congress, and that’s what’s really the focus of my masters capstone that I wrote when I was at Georgetown last year, about how a younger Congress would be good for democracy…I’ll add on that young people have played an important role in our politics ever since our founding when more than two dozen young people under 35 signed our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Three of our greatest presidents, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, were all in their twenties when they first held political office. It’s time, I think, for Millennials to make our mark on politics, too.
SR: Awesome. I didn’t realize they were so young! Is there anything else you’d like to leave us with? We’re really excited to share all your ideas with our readers.
Nick: Thanks for all the substantive questions.
SR: Of course. We really appreciate you taking the time, and it’s great to talk to someone my age involved in politics to see what they think about all of these issues.
Nick: I think one thing to comment on is to pull back rather than broadly speaking. I think I represent a government philosophy that isn’t traditionally conservative or traditionally liberal. It’s based on what I would describe as identifying the best ideas to address our toughest challenges. But what glues it all together is this idea that we should combine what I think are our conservative and traditional principles of limited government and personal responsibility with a government that is robust in enhancing opportunity, and to me, both parties have good ideas of how to do that. And discussing my philosophy might be summarized by saying our federal government should be in the business of setting goals, empowering local governments and civil societies, perhaps in partnerships, developing solutions on scales that work, so we’re focusing on what we’re setting out to achieve, and not focusing on whether it’s the government doing it or civil society is doing it; it’s whoever can do it best. And that’s sort of a government as a platform type idea. The federal government should run the operating system, but not necessarily producing the apps that make things work and to solve problems. I think that’s where we would be able to transcend the rigid ideology of big versus small government that we’ve been stuck in for the past half century.
SR: Well, I think what you’re doing is pretty inspiring, and I hope it will motivate more young people to get more involved and see politics in a different light. I wish you lots of luck, and we look forward to seeing your campaign progress.