Politics and Government

Meet the first Gen Z Republican elected to the Minnesota Legislature

A person poses for a portrait
Rep. Elliott Engen poses for a portrait outside the Minnesota State Capitol on March 7 in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Elliott Engen loves his job.

Engen, who is 24, took office in January in the Minnesota House of Representatives representing House district 36A, which includes Lino Lakes, Circle Pines, North Oaks, Centerville and White Bear Township in the northeast part of the metro area. 

“It’s such a high learning curve, but every single day, you get to wake up and you get to help people,” Engen said of his first month in office. 

He took a step back from his job with an environmental conservation nonprofit to commit to legislating full-time, something he says he owes his constituency. He’s still figuring out the work-life balance — like when to turn off the office lights and head home for dinner — but he’s steadily working towards the white picket fence life in Lino Lakes, Minn. with his wife Faith Engen and their dog, Finn.

Engen is one of two Generation Z lawmakers stepping into the Minnesota Legislature this year. Engen is a Republican while the other, state Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, is a DFLer, making each the only legislator of their generation in their respective political parties in the state. Already, these young politicians are poised to shape the course of their parties. 

The Pew Research Center defines Millennials as people born 1981 through 1996, and Gen Z after 1997 (an end year has yet to be defined).

These two generations will be a majority of potential voters by 2028, according to a report released last month from The Brookings Institution, which also noted that young voters overwhelmingly voted for Democratic congressional candidates in 2022, swinging elections in almost every battleground state.

Engen isn’t fazed by that. 

“A lot of folks would characterize my generation as being more progressive in their leanings and that might be true,” he told MPR News. “But I do know that we don’t always trust institutions that have quote-unquote power over us … we don’t always want helicopter parents.”  

“We just want things to run smoothly,” he adds. “We want transparency, we want accountability. But we also want policies that care about people and we can do all of the above.” 

Engen sees an opportunity to change public perception of Republicans.

“I think that we are compassionate. I don't think that conservatives are across the board heartless. Some of them for sure and some Democrats for sure. But I think overall we do want to do good by our constituents and for the state, but we haven’t been doing a good enough job of letting people know why it is what we believe. If we do that more, we can show people that we actually have a heart,” Engen said.

As young people not only come of age but begin to start families and businesses, Engen wanted to get a head start on elevating their voices to find solutions to pressing issues. 

“We’ve constantly heard politicians for forever say ‘We’re doing this for the next generation.’ Well, we are the next generation and maybe we should be at the table as well.” 

His path to politics

A few years ago, Engen was a passionate baseball player at Hamline University considering law school down the road. He said he got politically involved after feeling conversations on campus wouldn’t lead to needed social change.

“I just saw that percolating on campus was a sense of discourse that wasn't necessarily sustainable. In my eyes, it was a lot more of reciting the talking points of either Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow, just kind of the extremes talking at each other rather than talking with each other,” Engen said. 

So he founded a chapter of the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA at Hamline where people with both liberal and conservative political beliefs would meet to debate ideas.  

That he could bring affinity for discourse to the State Capitol did not occur to him until a chance encounter in December 2019 with Joe Mitchell, who at 21 became the youngest person in the Iowa Legislature in 2018.

Engen and his wife were in West Palm Beach, Fla. for the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit. They were discussing policy in a hot tub when Mitchell overheard and asked if he was a candidate or in office. 

Engen recalls laughing at the idea. “No way,” he said he had responded. “I’m not older and don't have any individual wealth. So why would I be in office?” 

Mitchell said Engen asked him, “’Who's gonna vote for a 20 year old?’ And so I said, ‘Well, you know, 6,800 people in Iowa's 84th district when I first ran when I was 20.’” 

Engen said hearing about Mitchell’s success planted a seed.

“That’s what got it into my mind that we’re not bound to be on the sidelines of politics until later in our lives,” he said.

Engen quit his college baseball team to run for office, first in 2020, when he narrowly lost to the Democrat incumbent by 100 votes. He ran for state house again after redistricting and won in another tight race.

He said he is no longer affiliated with Turning Point USA, which has been criticized for targeting professors they identified as liberal and amplifying far-right extremists.

“The org’s original stances aligned with my values of free markets, individualism and limited government. I no longer feel that those values are the identity of the organization, and therefore, I don’t support it,” he said. “I have never, nor will ever, support extremism from the right. I aim to unify, not divide.”

Getting Gen Z elected

Mitchell started a nonprofit called Run GenZ in 2020 to recruit, empower and mentor young conservatives to run for office, ranging from school boards and city councils to state legislatures.

After their initial meeting, Mitchell said he was a resource for Engen throughout his campaigning, offering advice on messaging, developing an online presence and getting the party endorsement.

“It's not rocket science,” Mitchell said. “It's pretty simple. It's about viability in that seat, making sure it's a viable seat to run in. Making sure that you can hold a conversation and that you can work hard and ask people for their vote at the doorstep.”

A man takes the oath of office
Rep. Joe Mitchell, R-Wayland, center, takes the oath of office during the opening day of the Iowa Legislature on Jan. 14 at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall | AP Photo 2019

In 2022, Mitchell reported Run GenZ had a 78 percent win rate, with 37 of 47 candidates under 30 years old taking office. He said while the country did not see a huge red wave, he thinks their program’s candidate quality and campaign training helped. 

Mitchell hopes to double their number of successful candidates in the next two years. He wants to both amplify young people with conservative values and counter the progressive faction of the Democratic Party, which he said offers young voters more representation with politicians like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost.

“Frankly, I think the Democrat Party does a really good job of trying to put some of these young people that have been successful on a pedestal and showcase them to the world,” he said. “And not necessarily neglect them like the Republican Party or the conservative movement has done to a certain extent when young people try to get involved.” 

In January, Run GenZ held its annual candidate training workshop. Engen attended for the first time as a speaker and found people had the same questions he did: Am I ready to do this? How do people perceive my age? Will I be taken seriously?

Engen estimates 150 Gen Z-ers were there and are running for office across the country. 

Engen said he told them, "Yes, you can. You need to quit seeing youth and quote unquote inexperience as something that's a detriment. It's a power, because you're able to come to this with a fresh perspective."

Engen’s first moves in office

As state representatives debated HF 1, a bill to protect abortion rights in Minnesota, for hours in January, Engen shared the story of a 15-year-old pressured into an abortion clinic by an abusive boyfriend. An older woman intervened, letting her know she could choose to raise the child. That girl was his mother.

He voted against the bill, which ultimately passed and became law, calling it “not reasonable” and expressing concern around the lack of guardian consent.

“I respect the stories that we’ve heard from the other side of the aisle and you’re strong for telling ‘em,” Engen told Democrats. But what was needed, he said, was for legislators to help constituents “find ways to actually speak to each other again.” 

Bringing people together and being responsive to constituents is at the heart Engen’s approach to his job.

On the campaign trail, he said he heard public safety, school safety and the general affordability of life were the top issues so it’s what he is prioritizing in his first term.

Recently, Engen voted against restoring voting rights for felons once they’re out of prison or jail. He also introduced the Safe Haven In Every Local District (SHIELD) Act, which would mandate and fund school security system improvements.

“We have passion. We have energy. And we have ideas. Now, it's just time that they're brought to the table and implemented in our state's policy,” he said.  

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