He was a long-shot candidate with no prior political experience, and so very few people noticed when Aaron Coleman announced he was running for governor of Kansas last July. Those he told did not take him seriously — he could not even vote in the last election.
But in Kansas, there are no minimum age restrictions to run and at 17, Coleman is one of six teenagers who have announced their bids in the last year to become chief executive of the state.
Now, amid significant interest in their novel candidacies, some state lawmakers are clamoring to reform the eligibility process. The attention could create a carnival-like note to the race, and some lawmakers are calling for clearer election guidelines.
This week, the Kansas House moved a bill out of committee that would require that candidates for governor fit two criteria: to be eligible to vote in the state and to be a state resident for at least four years.
"I’m not discouraging them," Rep. Blake Carpenter, who sponsored the bill, said in an interview. He has "heard people say that a cat or a dog could be on the ballot."
"But as soon as they turn 18, if they want to run for the legislature, knock yourself out," he said. He added he is not sure when the bill will be taken up by the full House. It would also need to pass the state Senate.
But since the bill would not take effect until next January, the teenagers who are running could be seated if they are elected. Five of the teenage candidates interviewed — Coleman, Joseph Tutera Jr., Tyler Ruzich, Dominic Scavuzzo and Ethan Randleas — have submitted paperwork with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
They have not yet held formal campaign events, but said they have been busy speaking to the news media and at forums.
Tutera, 16, who is running as a Republican, had realistic expectations about his effort to become his party’s nominee in August against veteran politicians like Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is seeking a full term as governor after the previous officeholder, Sam Brownback, was confirmed to an ambassadorship in January. Neither Kobach nor Coyler responded to a request for comment.
"The day a 17-year-old wins governor of any state will be the day pigs fly," said Tutera, a student at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Missouri. But "hey, we’re here, we’ve got ideas." His official campaign website, which features the hashtag #TheNewGeneration, offers merchandise for sale, including hats, mugs and phone cases.
In a political climate where many are disillusioned, Coleman, of Overland Park, thought running would be an opportunity to get young people interested in politics and "to strengthen the youth vote." Inspired by news reports about Deez Nuts, the satirical presidential candidate who was revealed to be a 15-year-old, Coleman thought he might be able to drum up some support for his progressive ideas despite an unusual political profile — or maybe because of it. He is running as an independent, but said he may seek the Green Party nomination.
"Really if you look at it, our generation is getting screwed over so bad," said Coleman, who said he is working on his GED and taking classes at a local community college. "This could educate voters. They might say, if I could run, then you could run. It’s really just about getting more people involved."
The five teenage candidates insisted they should be allowed to voice their ideas in front of voters.
Ruzich, 17, a student at Shawnee Mission North High School west of Kansas City, who is running as a Republican, said he thought it was unfair that he and other young Republican candidates will not be able to participate in the party’s debates. (The rules stipulate that candidates must have voted in the 2014 election to be eligible.)
"The Republican Party is, when it comes to young people, in a major crisis. The party is really out of touch with young people," said Ruzick, who thinks public schools in Kansas have become a national embarrassment and must be reformed.
A sixth teenage candidate, Jack Bergeson, who was not available for comment, is running as a Democrat.
Already, many of the young candidates have learned to take advantage of the divisive political climate. Brownback, the five candidates all say, deeply mismanaged the state’s budget during his tenure in office. Randleas, 18, from Wichita, liked the idea of cutting taxes, but knocked the former governor for his delivery.
"When you’re cutting revenue, you have to cut spending too, or it’s not going to work," said Randleas, who is running as a libertarian candidate and is a senior at Wichita Heights High School. He pointed out that candidates like Ron and Rand Paul, Barry Goldwater, and other populist political figures also had their bona fides called into question. President Donald Trump himself entered the 2016 election as a long-shot candidate who nobody thought could win.
"They didn’t have any experience," he said. "I want to be like that, outside trying to make a difference. I’m not a career politician."
Still, Scavuzzo, 18, a senior at Rockhurst High School who is running as a Republican, said he believes adding a minimum age as an eligibility requirement would be a smart move.
But that does not he mean he is not serious about his run.
"I am 100 percent trying to win," he said. "If you’re not trying to win there’s no point in doing this."