The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Jay Hartley, President of College Democrats

The following is an interview with Jay Hartley (they/them), the newly elected president of the College Democrats of America. They talk about the future of the College Democrats, the future of the Democratic Party, and progressive politics. Portions of the interview have been edited for clarity, readability and flow.

Thank you so much for being part of this interview. You want to give a basic introduction?

Definitely. My name is Jay Hartley, I use they/them pronouns. I am a reproductive justice community organizer, and I’m now also the national president of the College Democrats of America, which means that I’m a DNC member and I’m able to represent the youth voice, and in particular, the progressive youth voice. We’re the official youth wing of the Democratic Party. We have around 100,000 members and around 500 chapters.

So you’re a DNC member. What does that entail?

Having DNC membership means that you are invited to a DNC meeting every couple of months to vote on important legislation and resolutions to help guide the party into the future. So the next time I go to a DNC meeting, I’ll be voting on where we’re going to have the convention in 2024. It’s also a space for people interested in politics to engage with the party and build connections across state lines and across communities.

How did you get interested in politics?

I’ve always had a cross-cultural life. My parents and my eldest brother are all from Jamaica and, you know, growing up outside of Chicago is a little controversial. But in 2007, I saw a political candidate on TV and I absolutely fell in love. Everyone expects me to say Barack Obama, but it was actually Hillary Clinton. When I was eight I dragged my parents to political rallies and things like that. In 2016, I supported her again and went to Iowa to knock on doors and all that stuff. 

It’s a bit confusing that you identify as so far left yet you supported Clinton. 

It always confuses people. Supporting Hillary Clinton is something I look back on pretty fondly. She was a candidate that I believe was very inspirational for a lot of people, and [her campaign] was very important in the development of my understanding of representational politics. I really wanted to see a woman as president. As someone who is black queer, first generation, all of these things, I believe I deserve to see myself represented in politics. And that’s something that helped shape my trajectory. I wouldn’t support her if she ran in 2024, and you know, I’ve moved beyond where her political ideologies were. Even in 2016, I agreed more with Bernie Sanders’s politics, but I believe that Hillary Clinton would’ve been a better leader.

Many people on the more radical progressive side of politics have been hesitant to support the Democratic Party. Could you explain your preference to work with the party and not outside it?

We all have our own ways of creating change. You know, you can be someone completely divested from the political apparatus and do incredible work, but I also believe we need some kind of balance. I work on the electoral side while also doing community organizing. That electoral piece is important to me because I think we should be voting and engaging with the people who represent us. A lot of people think ‘what will my one vote do’, but collectively, if we organize, we can create real change. 

We don’t have to pick between the lesser of two evils if we engage with a system with how it is currently constructed. We can find the future and build the future where we have a government that’s truly representative of our values, young people, and all the communities around the United States.

What do you say to the progressives who feel the Democratic Party doesn’t represent them?

The Democratic Party is a tool that delays progress. Party structures go in-between the individual and the government. And, there are special interests in the Democratic Party just as there’s special interests in the Republican Party. But, in theory, we live in a democracy. I hate to use verbiage from the Biden campaign, but if we organize, we will win. That’s how you create systematic change, and that’s why I stay invested in the Democratic Party. 

There are many other political organizations that operate and create change in the U.S., but I personally believe that if we want to see things like universal healthcare, racial justice and other things realized in the United States, my best avenue is working with the Democratic Party. Now, on a more local level, it might be best to work with other organizations; especially in states like Louisiana where the party is more conservative or in states like Illinois where the party is so bureaucratic. There, you might want to work with an organization like the Democratic Socialists of America. In many places, they’ve done amazing, impactful work.

Could you talk about what the College Democrats do?

So we have a very interesting job. We want to get as many young people out to vote as well as encourage progressive young candidates to run. Our best supporters are people like Nina Turner, Katie Porter, AOC, etc. We wanna see those people who may not technically be a college Democrat reelected because they’re champions for the issues that we believe in.

What does progressive policy look like?

The team that I’ve assembled over the last few months view it as human-centered politics. We look at the history of the United States and we don’t shirk away from it. We acknowledge all of the harm that has been done in this country, but we want to create a future where every voice is valued. And we believe in a couple of hard issues that we will always stand by but we overall want to see a United States that is built around recognizing the humanity of every person who is within this country. We have innovative ideas on what it means to be an American. Not too long ago, someone with my identities would not have been welcomed into any political space.  So we’re moving from that framework of understanding and we’re building a new future.

What are a few of those issues that you can draw a hard line around? 

Foreign policy, for one. Making sure the military budget is not as large as it is, and making sure we lead with a diplomatic mentality and not a war mentality. We believe the U.S. needs to reform its healthcare. And, we think we really need to engage with race, class, sexuality, and all these identities that have for too long been swept under the rug.

What are the issues most important to you?

I always harp on healthcare because it’s the most important thing. I’m kind of moving off of my parents health insurance and looking for jobs, so that’s been on the top of my mind. 

And we’re in a strange place with healthcare.

Right? A lot of people heralded in Obamacare and built this new option, but it also left people out to dry. There’s way more we need to do. Two of my insulins are $750 per month. I have medical devices around $500 dollars each that I need to buy every so often. And my Twitter feed is full of people who have passed away because they couldn’t access insulin. In other countries Insulin is incredibly cheap. I believe it takes like 5 to 6 to make a vial but sold for such a high mark-up here. It’s because of, you know, greed and the way the U.S. is structured.

The issue I’ve spent the most time working on is abortion access. I saw an article from Georgetown Law that ranked Louisiana as the worst state to be a woman and we’ve had that moniker for a couple years going. I am non-binary, but I was socialized as a man and I still present in a masculine way, so I have some of those privileges. So, I like to think about how I can weaponize them to support women and other gender-marginalized people. I’ve worked with the New Orleans Abortion Fund and Lift Louisiana, the premier reproductive justice org in the state. That’s really where I’ve found my political home. I also care a lot about transgender and gender-affirming care, which are currently at risk. We want to make sure everyone in Louisiana gets access to that.

There has been some pushback on gender-affirming care lately. 

I mean, the choice to transition is never something people do lightly. Just like with abortion, it’s a decision to be made between a person and a doctor. I think the Republicans have overemphasized a small subsection [people who have detransitioned]. Trans kids have the right to exist, and should have the chance to live the gender identity most important to them. 

What does the future of College Democrats look like?

Until November 8th, we’re going to organize for this election and support the candidates we believe in. And then, until 2024, we’ll be doing a lot of internal work, to build connections and make sure people have the tools to engage in the 2024 election. Hopefully, the Democratic candidate is young and firmly progressive, but that’s not my administration’s issue. 

We’re coming out of a period of struggle, if I’m going to be honest. We need to move beyond just being a student organization. We’re fighting for funding from the DNC and we want to see that they have an overall investment in the youth. We’re doing the work, we’re campaigning, we’re voting and we want to feel like our party supports us.

Why did they stop funding you? 

There was a loss of funding during the pandemic, and there were also people that abused their power which depleted trust. We had a lot of presidents who said things like ‘if you don’t vote for me then I won’t invest in your state.’

Thank god that wouldn’t happen in real politics.

In a lot of ways, we’re just replicating the systems that we see. There were also a lot of issues with identity, particularly around Islamophobia, anti-blackness and antisemitism, and it’s been difficult. But, I think these issues have always been bubbling under the surface, and we have to engage with those difficult topics, especially now that we have the language to interact with it. We don’t want to cancel anyone or push anyone away, but we want people to learn about these things.

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Louisiana State University

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