After more than 30 years at Ford Motor Co., Bibiana Boerio wrapped up her career there as managing director of the Jaguar division. But she had no desire to drive off into the sunset in a luxury car.
Boerio wanted to keep the engines running. So, at age 54, she worked as a Congressional staffer (she was chief of staff to U.S. Congressman Joe Sestak, a Democrat from Pennsylvania from 2008 to 2010), then served as the interim president of Seton Hall University, her alma mater (2013-2014).
“You have to keep the brain cells working,’’ she says. “You have to keep challenging and refreshing and finding new ways to solve problems and look at the world.’’
Now, at age 64, she’s making yet another career pivot: running for Congress as a Democrat in her home state of Pennsylvania.
As an older first-time candidate, she is far from alone.
Boerio is one of 121 first-time candidates for Congress or governor aged 50 and older identified by Considerable by poring through records from the Federal Election Commission, Balletopedia.org, VoteSmart.org, the candidates’ own campaigns, and other sources. In all, close to 40% of the 308 first time candidates running for the U.S. House are 50 or older, as are five of the nine first-time candidates running for governor and six of the eight first-time candidates competing for U.S. Senate seats.
These older first timers include a good number of both Democrats and Republicans, though blue staters have the edge (56% of the group vs. 43% who are red-staters, with one independent), and represent 37 states stretching from California to Virginia. Just over a third of them are women.
The candidates come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds. Their ranks include several wealthy business people, a few former journalists, a retired NFL linebacker, an Uber driver, and at least one former daytime soap opera star.
Part of a larger movement
While much has been made of the records being set by women running in this election cycle, little notice has been paid to the people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s who are running for the first time.
But to Marc Freedman, the founder of Encore.org, those older first-time candidates are part of a larger movement of people in this age group who find themselves looking for an “encore’’ career where they can be of service to their communities.
“There is a burgeoning sense of purpose in the second half of life,’’ he says. “We’ve seen dramatic growth in the Peace Corps, in ministry, in non-profit careers.’’
The high numbers of people 50 and older in the field of first-timers in this election cycle strikes him as “an unchronicled aspect of this surge in service.’’
“Instead of freedom from work, we see a freedom to work in new ways and to new ends,’’ says Freedman, whose new book How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations comes out next month.
It’s Freedman’s hope that this wave of 50-plus first-time candidates serve as a catalyst not only for their peers, but for young people as well, generations working together.
That attitude stands in stark contrast to a recent video meant to encourage young people to vote by pitting the generations against each other. In the ad by the group Acronym, elderly voters discourage younger ones from going to the polls, mocking issues like climate change that younger voters particularly care about and taunting them with lines like, “We’re a generation of do-ers, not whiners.”
While the video was meant to be funny, Freedman, along with many advocates in the longevity arena, finds the video and its negative portrayal of older voters as people who don’t care about the future as “worrisome.’’ He says, “I don’t know whether to be galvanized or horrified.’’
One thing is certain: First-time older candidates like Rick Neal, 52, a Peace Corps veteran and former international aid worker, are about as far from the elders portrayed in the video as you could get. He’s challenging a GOP incumbent in a House race in Ohio’s 15th district near Columbus.
“Service and advocacy, that’s what my life has been about,’’ Neal says. “This is just the next step.’’
The Trump effect
Why are so many people entering the national political scene at an older age? One big reason, say political scientists: President Donald Trump, who serves as both a positive and negative motivator for these new candidates, depending on their party affiliation.
“One of the lessons out of the Donald Trump victory was, here’s a guy who’s never held office before, and he’s president of the United States,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “So why shouldn’t I run for office?”
Then there’s the opposite effect, says Steven Webster, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis.
“This opposition to Trump and his policies has really pushed people who otherwise would remain on the sidelines of politics into actually participating in a very direct way,” Webster says.
Either way, “Trump is having a positive impact in encouraging people to run,” agrees Heather Evans, a political scientist at Sam Houston State University in Texas.
“It’s really an ‘all hands on deck’ kind of moment for our country,” says Neal, the former Peace Corps worker running as a Democratic challenger in Ohio.
Pastor and former Atlanta Falcons running back Joe Profit, 69, says he also felt compelled to run because of the current political environment, but as a Republican challenging a Democratic incumbent in Georgia’s 4th Congressional district outside Atlanta.
“The country right now is in a spiritual war,” Profit says. “Being an ordained minister, I just had the call to get in the game, get off the sidelines.”
Bringing what they know
Because they’ve all had full lives before their runs, first-time candidates over 50 tend to bring what they’ve learned in their lives into their campaign. After all, the up side of aging is experience.
Former Jaguar director Boerio, for instance, likens running a campaign to management in the business world.
“Learning to sell cars has many parallels to learning to be a candidate and preparing a campaign plan to win,” she says. “You need to understand your brand, what you stand for, what you promise.”
Kimberlin Brown Pelzer is also bringing business experience to her campaign, where she’s running as a Republican against incumbent Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz in Riverside County, Calif.
At 57, the California native has been a daytime-television star (The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful), a small business owner, and she helps run her family’s avocado farm.
She said the impact of the Affordable Care Act on her business and employees is one of several factors motivating her candidacy.
“I paid for 75% [of my employees’ health insurance] and they got to pick their plan” before the ACA took effect, she says. “Those people that had really great coverage in the past now have nothing more than catastrophic insurance.”
Pelzer says she was approached about running for office in the 1990s. But back then she worried that the rigors of a campaign and serving in Congress would take away from her time with her young children.
That concern is one reason why many women don’t run at a younger age, Walsh says, though that appears to be changing this year.
“In the past, we’ve seen that women tend to be older than their male colleagues when they run and when they serve,” Walsh says “They’re less likely to have children under the age of 18 still living at home.”
Rick Neal, the former Peace Corps volunteer running in Ohio’s 15th district, has the distinction of both hitting the older age bracket and also being a stay-at-home dad. He and his husband, businessman and Columbus native Tom Grote, are raising two daughters, ages 6 and 9.
They’ve managed to make the campaign part of the household.
“They call me Congress daddy,” Neal says of his children. “They’re great in the field. Our younger one likes marching in parades and the older one really likes canvassing, door knocking. So we’ve got it covered.”
Assessing the candidates’ chances
More than three-fourths of the candidates Considerable identified are challenging incumbents, which can be an uphill battle. Still, they could benefit from the fact that older voters are more likely to show up to vote, and that voters identify more with candidates of similar age.
Political scientist Webster confirms that’s a definite advantage for these first-time candidates during an off-year election.
Sam Houston State political scholar Evans said incumbents typically hold an advantage over newcomers. But that could prove differently this year.
“The fact that the president’s job approval has not been that high can affect the turnout this time,” she said. “For a lot of these new people, they stand a good shot of getting in office if they are running as Democrats.”
That could include Boerio, who is relishing her run.
She says, “I knew if I didn’t do this… I knew I would always look back and ask, ‘What if?’ ”
To assemble this research, we downloaded candidate filing data from the Federal Election Commission for Congressional candidates, removed incumbents, then checked candidate information on Ballotpedia.org and VoteSmart.org to determine if candidates had run for office previously. We also used VoteSmart and other sources, including campaigns, Spokeo.com and news stories, to determine candidates’ ages.