Devin Perez will celebrate his 21st birthday just a few weeks before the general election in 2018.
Although the University of Florida online student will have just met the age requirement by the election to run for the Florida House of Representatives, he said he doesn’t let his age get in the way of reaching his goals.
Perez, now 19, filed to run as a Democrat for House District 28 (Seminole County) on Jan. 31. If elected, he will be one of the youngest politicians in the Florida House.
Born in Miami, Perez always hoped to have a career in politics. But it wasn’t until the last presidential election that he decided to go for it.
“Watching this election disheartened me because [President Donald] Trump gave people motivation to speak out on their negative ideals,” he said. “I’m the type of person who does not stand for hatred, who does not stand for blatant intolerance.”
Perez said he knows there will be people who doubt him for a number of reasons.
“Obviously, I am young,” he said. “They are going to say I’m a child. They are going to say that I have no experience. But honestly, this is not an issue because I am very mature for my age.”
Perez is studying criminology and law at UF. He said he graduated at the top of his class from the Medical Academy for Science and Technology in Homestead. He believes his experiences in this program and in college have given him perspective on health care and education issues.
If elected, Perez’s first order of business would be to pass a bill that cracks down on discrimination. Perez has 26 total issues he’d like to pursue, but his top three are: civil rights activism, environmental activism and education.
“I feel like other candidates cannot really relate to my experience in education and our generation and how they are growing up in today’s world,” Perez said.
Though he is young, Perez thinks he will be able to understand his constituents because he has already experienced a great deal in his life.
“I grew up in poverty,” he said. “I grew up with divorced parents. I just feel like I am a well-rounded candidate and that people can come to me.”
Perez has been open about his experiences with mental illness. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has been taking medication for the past two years.
“They are going to say that I am not stable enough to lead,” he said. “Those who are saying I’m not fit to run are promoting the stigma against mental illness. People should not be afraid to get the help that they deserve.”
Between his African-American, Puerto Rican, and Vietnamese heritage and being a member of the LGBT community (he identifies as pansexual), Perez said he would bring diversity to the Legislature.
But while he’s hopeful that he’ll inspire voters from different backgrounds, he faces the challenge of appealing to voters in a district that is historically Republican.
“My district, Seminole County, is completely red,” he said. “It has been red for so long. But it’s finally changing. It’s more purple and has a little bit of blue now because of people fighting back against what’s happening with the current administration.”
Perez faces other challenges: He has no political experience and doesn’t have a campaign manager (though 40-plus volunteers are behind him).
People as young as Perez rarely run for office, said Stephen Craig, a UF professor of political science. Candidates must be 25 to run for the U.S. House of Representatives and 30 to run for the Senate. But every so often, younger people will run for at the city or state level.
Name recognition and campaign funding are the biggest challenges Perez will face, he said.
“It’s hard to get elected to office, period,” Craig said. “Its especially hard unless you have a political base, unless you have political resources.”
However, it is possible to have political success as a young millennial. If elected, Perez would join Rep. Amber Mariano, R – Hudson, and Rep. Jennifer Mae Sullivan, R – Mount Dora — now 21 and 25, respectively.
Mariano filed to run in District 36 when she was just 20 years old. To her surprise, her young age actually helped impress voters.
“You really think it’s going to be negative,” she said, “but after talking to all of the voters and telling them my story, they were inspired to see someone who wasn’t afraid to take on the challenge at such a young age.”
Sullivan was first elected to her District 31 seat as a 23-year-old amid a competitive five-candidate primary.
She said learned a lot from working on political campaigns in the past, from school-board and county commission races to Rick Scott’s campaign for governor. As soon as she decided to run, she drafted a 20-page plan to victory based on her experiences and worked to raise $10,000 in 10 days.
“I always tell people, ‘Don’t allow your date of birth to prevent you from going out and changing the world,’” she said.
Perez recently spoke about his plans to run in 2018 in front of a crowd of about 200 Democrats, said Brent Kimball, chief spokesman and strategist of the Seminole County Democratic Party.
“As a guy who is approaching middle age, it’s hard not to be impressed by a 19-year-old who’s got the guts and the heart to not only stand in front of a crowd that big, but also put it all out there and run for office,” Kimball said. “I’d be a fool not to say that his courage stood out to everyone in the room that night.”
But the Seminole County Democratic Party can’t fully endorse Perez yet because he has to get through the primaries, which may bring one or more other Democratic contenders, Kimball said.
In the past, a Democratic candidate like Perez would have probably had a very difficult time being elected in the historically red Seminole County, Kimball said. But politics have changed so much in the past year that Perez may just have a shot.
“Things are so fluid now and people are so charged up on both sides of the aisle that it’s really anybody’s game,” he said. “Whatever rules we had before the recent presidential election may or may not be out the window. … Anything is possible now.”