Meet the 13-year-old Democrat Running for Governor of Vermont!
Whether by design or accident, Vermont’s founders imposed no age requirement on those who could run for governor of this state.
Town officials in Vermont must be legal voters, meaning they have taken the voter’s oath and are at least 18 years old.
No such requirement exists for Vermont’s highest office.
The constitutional quirk paved the way for Ethan Sonneborn, 13, of Bristol, to announce this summer that he’s running for governor.
Eligible candidates must have simply lived in Vermont for four years before the election — “which I’ve tripled, and then some,” said Sonneborn, a 13-year resident of Vermont.
The youngest governor to lead Vermont was F. Ray Keyser, Jr., who was 34 years old when he took office in 1961, according to the state Archives and Records.
Sonneborn, who is starting eighth grade this fall at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School, hopes to beat that record by a good 20 years.
The young Democrat follows the news closely, chooses his words deliberately, and has a ready response when asked about such thorny topics as marijuana legalization or racism. He supports marijuana legalization, and he says he’s running to ensure legal protections for minorities and LGBT Vermonters amid what he sees as increasingly common white nationalism.
What does he do for fun? Model United Nations — and, apparently, launching campaigns.
“I am running to win,” the young candidate said, “but I would very happily settle for sending a message about young people in politics.”
Sonneborn says he hopes to combat cynicism and apathy.
“I don’t have a lot of experience in being politically apathetic,” Sonneborn said, “but I think that people young people hear older people complain about politics a lot. And I think that there’s this idea that there’s no such thing as an honest politician, and I’d say that’s part of why I’m running.”
Sonneborn traces his interest in politics to age 5, when he found a photo of Robert F. Kennedy in an encyclopedia purchased at a local garage sale. About a year later, he met then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin at the Addison County Fair and Field Days. The two talked about the environment.
“I suggested putting more recycling bins in parks,” Sonneborn said. “And he agreed.”
(Sonneborn was unsure what Shumlin did with his advice after winning the 2010 election, but Vermont passed a universal recycling law in 2012 that requires recycling bins and trash cans to be equally common in public parks.)
His mother, Jenna Sonneborn, described herself and her husband as non-political people. She said her son has had a “voracious interest” in history and politics since early childhood. He spoke with his kindergarten teacher about becoming president someday.
“This is something that Ethan drives in our family,” Jenna Sonneborn said.
When Sonneborn was in sixth grade at Bristol Elementary School, the school banned talking for most of the lunch period.
Sonneborn and his friends launched a series of peaceful protests: They’d hold signs and refuse to eat lunch until the silence was lifted. Adults in the community took notice, and the policy came to an end.
Sonneborn created an Instagram account announcing a run for president in the year 2044 — he’d be 40 years old — but later abandoned the effort. In April, he began looking at local Vermont elected offices. He first considered the Vermont Legislature, which also lacks an age requirement, but eventually settled on governor.
“I’d rather lose a fight with a lot of visibility than lose a fight quietly,” said Sonneborn. The effort came together quickly: He emailed his own press release to local media outlets before telling his family about the campaign plans.
“He jumped in,” said Jenna Sonneborn. She hopes the campaign is a learning experience for her son. “Ethan having a forum to get his ideas out is so good for him.”
The would-be governor is taking advice from a relative who works for a New York congressman. Sonneborn has also been talking with a 16-year-old who is running for governor of Kansas, the other state without an age requirement for its governor.