Politics

An ‘army of 16-year-olds’ takes on the Democrats in Massachusetts

Young progressives are an unpredictable new factor in Massachusetts elections. They’re ardent, and organized, and they don’t take orders.

Volunteers canvass for mayoral candidate Michelle Wu in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, May 1, 2021. (Philip Keith/The New York Times)


BOSTON — Dana Depelteau, a hotel manager, had just gone public with a long-shot candidacy for mayor in Boston when he noticed that someone in city politics was going after him online.

The effect of this attack, he said, was lightning-fast and pervasive. The morning after he announced his candidacy on Twitter, he showed up at his local barbershop and, while staring at himself in the mirror, overheard a customer describing his views as white supremacist.

“I’m thinking, ‘Man, politics is dirty,’” recalled Depelteau. He rushed home to fire back at his critic, a sharp-edged progressive who had dug up some of Depelteau’s old social media posts and was recirculating them online. But that, he discovered, was a big mistake.

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“I didn’t know how old she was,” he explained. “I just knew she was a prominent person.”

That is how he became aware of Calla Walsh, a leader in the group of activists known here as the Markeyverse. Walsh, a 16-year-old high school junior, has many of the attributes of Generation Z: She likes to refer to people (like the president) as “bestie.” She occasionally gets called away from political events to babysit her little brother. She is slightly in the doghouse, parent-wise, for getting a C+ in precalculus.

She is also representative of an influential new force in Democratic politics, activists who cut their teeth on the presidential campaigns of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

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The full strength of these activists — many of whom are not old enough to vote — did not become clear until last fall, when they were key to one of the year’s most surprising upsets, helping Sen. Edward Markey defeat a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who had been heavily favored to win.

In conversation, Walsh tends to downplay her movement, describing them as “Markey teens” and “theater kids” who “formerly ran, like, Taylor Swift or K-pop stan accounts.”

Lillian Gibson, left, and Calla Walsh canvassing for a mayoral candidate, Michelle Wu, in Boston. – Philip Keith/The New York Times

Canvassers for Ms. Wu in May. One test of the young progressives’ clout will come in the upcoming Boston mayoral race. (Philip Keith/The New York Times)

But the Markeyverse carried out a devastating political maneuver, firmly fixing the idea of Markey as a left-wing icon and Kennedy as challenging him from the right. They carried out ambitious digital organizing, using social media to conjure up an in-person workforce — “an army of 16-year-olds,” as one political veteran put it, who can “do anything on the internet.”

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They are viewed apprehensively by many in Massachusetts’ Democratic establishment, who say that they smear their opponents and are never held accountable; that they turn on their allies at the first whiff of a scandal; and that they are attacking Democrats in a coordinated effort to push the whole party to the left, much as the Tea Party did, on the right, to the Republicans.

Walsh, for one, is cheerfully aware of all those critiques.

In a podcast this spring, she recalled the day last summer when the Kennedy campaign singled her out in a statement, charging that negative campaigning online had created a vicious, dangerous atmosphere.

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“I won’t lie, I was terrified,” she said. But then, she said, the fear evaporated.

“That’s when I realized I had a stake in this game: They are scared of me, a random teenager on the internet who just happened to be doing some organizing with her friends,” she said. “I think that made us all think, ‘Hey, they’re scared of us. We have power over them.’”

The next round

After Markey beat Kennedy in the primary, Walsh taped a copy of his victory speech to the wall of her bedroom in Cambridge and turned her attention to down-ballot races.

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In his speech, Markey had specifically thanked the Markeyverse for helping him beat Kennedy. During a cycle in which campaigning moved almost entirely online, the young activists had done more than rebrand the candidate.

They seemed to have affected long-established voting patterns: In Massachusetts, the turnout among registered voters between 18 to 24 had shot up to 20.9% in the 2020 primary from 6.7% in 2018, and 2.1% in 2016, according to Tufts’ Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

The race had left them with a heady sense of power. Tristan Niedzielski, 17, a high school senior from Marlborough, decided to skip Model U.N. this year and instead signed up to work on two campaigns, one for a seat in the state House of Representatives, and one for a regional school committee.

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He applied digital approaches he had picked up in the Markeyverse, using chat groups, direct messages and texts to convert friend networks into a volunteer workforce. Both of his candidates lost, but narrowly, and he said he had learned something bigger: Outside of major cities, Massachusetts Democrats are not running sophisticated grassroots campaigns.

Tristan Niedzielski, 17, at a rally in Boston on Saturday. Mr. Niedzielski, a high school senior from Marlborough, decided to skip Model U.N. this year and instead signed up to work on two campaigns. (Philip Keith/The New York Times)

“It’s this lax culture of ‘Who do you know?,’” he said. “A lot of the state has never really seen any type of campaign political structure.”

Some of what the young progressives have done can best be described as opposition research, targeting Democrats whom they consider too far right.

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In December, Walsh dug up off-color Twitter posts by Valentino Capobianco, a Kennedy supporter and candidate for a State House seat. (A few weeks later, allegations of sexual misconduct emerged against Capobianco, who would not comment for this article. He lost the support of leading Democrats, and won 8% of the vote.)

Then she went after Depelteau, 36, a self-described “centrist Democrat,” recirculating social media posts he had made criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. (Depelteau, who withdrew from the race in April, said it was not because of Walsh’s criticisms. He then left Twitter, which he called “toxic.”)

She maintains a detailed spreadsheet on the declared candidates for mayor in Boston, monitoring donations from developers, police and energy companies. She runs trainings for young activists, entertaining her Twitter audience with juicy nuggets from campaign finance records, like a state representative who used campaign funds to expense AirPods.

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Her father, Chris Walsh, the director of Boston University’s college writing program, said her political enthusiasms have drifted over the last few years, from the existential cause of climate change to an exceedingly detailed focus on government and policy.

Plus, he said, “Calla is also a 16-year-old. Like most, and maybe more than most, she’s not particularly communicative.”

“Some of what I say is informed by looking at her Twitter,” he said.

The surge of grassroots activism has come as a jolt in Massachusetts, which, because it is so firmly in the grip of one party, does not have a history of competitive primaries.

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“The old guard, the consulting class, hasn’t figured out a way of combating it,” said Jordan Meehan, 29, who turned to Calla Walsh to organize digital outreach for a campaign last year, when he challenged a 34-year incumbent for a State House seat. He lost, but credits Walsh with devising a creative approach, reaching out individually to his social media followers and recruiting them for events and volunteer shifts.

“It really does threaten the whole consultant-industrial complex,” he said.

Numerous political strategists in Massachusetts refused to comment for this article. This is in part because, as one of them put it, “I don’t want to be bashing high schoolers on the record,” but equally, perhaps, because they are wary of becoming targets online.

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The Kennedy-Markey race left a bitter aftertaste for much of the state’s political class, who say the young activists overlooked much of Markey’s 44-year congressional record and unnecessarily vilified Kennedy.

“Either Kennedy or Markey would have been good for the things they care most about,” said Matt Bennett, the co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank based in Washington, D.C. “The idea that Joe Kennedy wouldn’t have been good on climate change is ridiculous. The notion that he wasn’t pure enough is a thing we have to be careful about.”

And he warned against overestimating the power of the Markeyverse, noting that since that primary, many challenges to moderate Democrats have fallen short. Even in Massachusetts, he noted, Joe Biden won the presidential primary, beating out Sanders and Warren.

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“Everyone pays far too much attention to Twitter,” he said. “It’s a funhouse mirror. It’s not real. It’s why so many journalists fell into the Bernie-is-inevitable trap. This is not where Democratic voters are.”

One test of the young activists’ clout will come in the upcoming Boston mayoral race, in which many former Markey volunteers have thrown their support behind Michelle Wu, a Warren ally who has proposed major changes to policy on climate, transportation and housing. City elections in Boston have, traditionally, been decided by middle-aged and older voters. But the surge of youth activism has thrown all those assumptions into the air.

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Michelle Wu, a mayoral candidate, gathered with teenage canvassers in Copley Square in Boston earlier this month. (Philip Keith/The New York Times)

“It’s energy from the bottom up, it’s not some ward and town committee chair telling people how to vote,” said the political strategist Doug Rubin, who is advising the campaign of Boston’s acting mayor, Kim Janey. “Previously, all the insiders used to find out who was going to win, and then they would want to be with the winners.”

He said he welcomed the change. If it makes consultants nervous, Rubin added, it’s meant to.

“People who say, ‘I can’t control it, I don’t understand it,’ well, that’s the whole point — you can’t control it,” Rubin said. “If you’re good on the issues they care about, they’re going to be with you. If you’re not, they’re not.”

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Markeyverse vs. Markey

That became clear last week when the Markeyverse went on the offensive.

Their target, this time, was Markey himself, who on Tuesday had put out a carefully worded Twitter thread on the mounting violence in Israel, apportioning some blame on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

This was a disappointment for many of the young progressives, who had been hoping for a sharp rebuke of Israel, like the ones that came from Sanders and Warren, or from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Though Markey’s voting record on foreign policy was no secret — he voted to authorize the occupation of Iraq in 2002, for example — it had faded into the background in their embrace of his candidacy, which focused heavily on his record on climate. Now, the group chats and Slack channels that comprise the Markeyverse were flooded with emotion, disappointment and betrayal.

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“It’s horrible to watch, and it’s disappointing,” said Emerson Toomey, 21, one of the authors of Ed’s Reply Guys, a Twitter account that helped establish Markey as a progressive star.

Toomey, a senior at Northeastern University, was computing, with some bitterness, the “hundreds of thousands of hours” of unpaid labor she and her friends had provided to the senator. It made her question the compact she had assumed existed, that, in exchange for their support, he would accommodate their views on the issues that mattered.

“Maybe he just said those things to us to get elected,” she said.

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They had shifted into full organizational mode, circulating a letter of protest that, Walsh hoped, could induce Markey to revisit his positions on the conflict.

“He owes us much of his victory,” she said, “so we do have leverage over him.”

Over the days that followed, Markey’s office was buffeted with calls from young volunteers. Twitter was brutal. John Walsh, who had been Markey’s campaign manager and is now his chief of staff, said he understood that they were disappointed and sounded regretful. (He is no relation to Calla Walsh.)

“I can tell you, Senator Markey loves these people,” he said of the young organizers. “He fought very hard for everything he told them he would fight for.”

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The Markeyverse, he said, now faced a key moment in their movement, determining whether they were willing to bend to preserve a relationship with an ally.

“If compromising is not in your toolbox, that’s a hard thing,” he said. “Finding that balance is something, I think, anybody who stays at this for a long period of time figures out.”

Late on Friday evening, Markey’s office offered a second statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This time, it called on Israel to seek an immediate cease-fire, and invoked “defenseless Palestinian families who are already living in fear for their lives and the lives of their children.” John Walsh said the statement was a response to Israel’s plans to deploy ground troops.

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It could have been recorded as a win for the Markeyverse, a sign that the senator had to pay attention to their views. But Calla Walsh wanted to push further, pointing to a list of four policy demands that volunteers had sent to the senator’s office.

The moment had become about proving something different: that the young progressives care more about issues than alliances. She concluded that they had been somewhat naive last year. “We were politically infatuated with Ed during the campaign, which caused us to have those blind spots,” she said. “Looking back, I think we should not have developed those blind spots.”

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She said that, in the future, she would probably never support another candidate whose views on the Middle East did not line up with hers. Then she ticked off a laundry list of legislation she would be happy to work on with Markey, like climate change and universal health care.

She sounded, for better or for worse, like an experienced political hand.

“It was never about him as an individual,” she said. “We will always have this community, whether or not he is the figurehead. We have moved beyond this being about one candidate.”

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