Nextgen begins 2020 cycle separated from founder Tom Steyer

Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, liberal voter-turnout group launches into 2020 cycle separated from former head Tom Steyer.


Katina Zentz

NextGen Founder Tom Steyer discusses voting with students at the Pentacrest on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. The organization works to engage students and to help them register to vote in November.

Sarah Watson, Politics Editor

Organizer Anthony Zarzycki sometimes has to correct people on whether the organization he’s with — Nextgen America — coordinates with its founder, presidential hopeful Tom Steyer.

“When any comments are brought up — and it’s usually brought up in passing — sometimes people have heard about Nextgen through, I’m guessing, some of his (Steyer’s) ads, but we tell them that legally we are completely separated,” Zarzycki said. “… You know, all the candidates are the same or treat them exactly equally in the sense that we are trying to get young people to vote.”

Nextgen, formerly headed by Steyer, is a Democrat-leaning organization that works to turn out people ages 18-35 to vote and caucus. It was a prominent force on Iowa college campuses during the midterm elections in 2018 as one of 11 states targeted by Nextgen’s national organization. Monday, the Iowa chapter announced it would launch a $3.5 million plan to register and organize young people in 2020 to unseat Iowa’s Republican U.S. Senator, Joni Ernst, and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.

According to Nextgen numbers, organizers embedded on more than 40 college campuses in Iowa in 2018 and gathered 13,000 voter-registration forms ahead of the 2018 elections. The group is looking to do the same work in 2020, and the national organization has pledged to spend as much as $45 million in the 2020 cycle.

Formerly known as Nextgen Climate, former hedge fund manager and billionaire Steyer founded the 501c3 in 2013 to do climate change-related advocacy. In 2017, the group changed its name to better reflect the group’s expanded mission to turn out young people to vote.

In July, Steyer announced he would step down from his role as president of the organization and run for the Democratic presidential nomination. New Nextgen Executive Director Ben Wessel said at the time the group has no plans to endorse.

Steyer has repeatedly touted Nextgen’s organizing efforts as a key experience plank in his run for the nomination — including in the last round of Democratic presidential debates.

“I’ve also built one of the largest grassroots organizations in the United States,” he said in the November Democratic debates in Atlanta. “Last year, NextGen America did the largest youth voter mobilization in American history.”

He continues to fund the effort, offering $50 million total for the 2019-20 election cycle divided between Nextgen and his Need to Impeach campaign, which advocated for President Trump’s removal from office through advertisements.

In 2018, Steyer visited several universities in Iowa through his Need to Impeach campaign including the UI in September 2018.

Steyer’s national campaign director Heather Hargreaves was a former executive at Nextgen and said both her and Steyer were proud of the work Nextgen had done and continues to do, but the campaign work separated itself from the advocacy work of Nextgen.

“Something that he will continue to talk about is the importance of young people voting, and not just young people but all people being more engaged in our democracy,” Hargreaves said.

For Nextgen organizers in 2020, the change in leadership doesn’t change the organization’s core mission.

In Iowa City, Nextgen recently hosted a debate watch party. It’s one of several efforts ramping up ahead of the caucuses to get young people informed about the candidates and registered to vote since people are more likely to continue voting after they participate in their first election.

“We know that that (young people caucusing) will turn into young people voting in the general November 2020,” Nextgen Iowa press secretary Murphy Burke said.

Voter turnout increased by 16 percent from 2014 to 2018 on the UI campus, according to a fall report by student-run group Hawk the Vote.

So far, Nextgen has at least one organizer at each of Iowa’s three public universities, Drake University, Grinnell College, and an organizer who hops around multiple campuses in the Cedar Rapids area. In a press release Monday, the Iowa chapter has plans to employ 16 full-time paid organizers working on more than 20 campuses in Iowa.

Zarzycki said he’ll likely caucus in Iowa, though he hasn’t committed to a certain candidate and doesn’t like to talk about it with people whom he’s registering to vote.

“Our field organizers, when they’re having conversations with young people, really do try and avoid talking about any specific candidate,” Zarzycki said. “The way we see is any young person voting is, you know, a good vote.”

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