Mason High School junior is running for political office

17-year old Sam Cao, a junior at Mason High School, is running to represent Ohio House District 56.


17-year old Sam Cao, a junior at Mason High School, is running to represent Ohio House District 56.

In the months leading up to the Ohio House District 56 representative election, one candidate is shaking up the race.

17-year old Sam Cao, a junior at Mason High School (the largest high school in Ohio), is a candidate running for the seat in the Ohio House, and he is the youngest candidate running for any seat in the state.

Cao, who will be 18 by Election Day on November 8th, is running as a Democrat. He filed to run in February and subsequently announced his campaign in late March, and a good deal of media coverage began to center on his campaign. Outlets like WLWT, FOX 19, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and others soon began to report on Cao’s running in the election, and from there, word about his campaign spread rapidly.

Cao’s story interested me, so I contacted him to learn more about both him and his campaign. He was more than happy to answer my questions.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Sheridan: What inspired you to run in the first place; how did your family and friends react when you told them?

Cao: Growing up, I had an appreciation for those in the public sector, but I had never given much thought to entering it myself. The past few years, however, have especially taught me how crucial it is to get involved in politics. We have seen the government’s pandemic response affecting every part of our lives, from how we interact to how we think. Maybe if you asked me a few years ago if politics is avoidable, I would have said a different answer, but at this point, I can’t see why anyone believes they can dodge what is happening in Washington or Columbus and how it is impacting us. Whether you would like to plug out the news, you can’t evade the responsibilities of tomorrow. When the pandemic started, it defeated all conceptions I had of the government being “invulnerable”, I realized that our system was hanging on by a thin string which was only going to get thinner with the status quo. I don’t want that string to break and for everything on top to collapse; I’m running on the message of unity through urgency during these polarizing, trying times. The final straw for my decision to put my name on the ballot was when my school shut down in January. As the biggest public school in the state during a period when the Omicron variant was rampant, we had so many cases. It took our school weeks before it shut down because of COVID, and it was only for one day. I applaud the decision; however, it was not for the exact concern for health that you think would be the reason. They shut down not because of a virus that had killed a million Americans already, not because teachers were at risk; they shut down because they ran out of substitute teachers to fill in for the ones that filed in sick (due to the variant) because they understood the weight of the situation. I vividly remember spending the day off finding out who my state representative was so that I could email them a proposal that could hopefully curb & alleviate this from happening again on such a magnitude. What I found was that my representative, Paul Zeltwanger, had one of the lowest attendance rates in Columbus. When asked why he has been absent for so many sessions, he essentially said that his vote didn’t matter. Wow. To have someone in that position, solely because of voters who believed otherwise, say that is unfathomable. I know other people that have tried to reach him, but he’s just unresponsive. During my rabbit hole of digging, I found out that I was eligible to run and that he was leaving office this year. I know that I would have regretted and asked ‘why didn’t we just do it ourselves’ if I hadn’t made the decision that I did in February (when I filed). The conditions that call for a Gen-Z candidate have aligned almost too perfectly. Someone had to step up for the community, and I guess that person was me. My parents were always incredibly supportive and have connected with some people who have helped a lot with this campaign. My friends were as well. Their parents and my teachers, however, were skeptical, and I’d say that’s reasonable. After some discussion and press coverage, they now know that this is no joke and that we are serious.

Sam Cao works on a paper during an AP government and politics class, taught by Susie Wilcox.
Sam Cao now has to balance his school workload and the duties that come with running for office. PHOTO: Liz Dufour/Cincinnati Enquirer

Sheridan: I read on your campaign website about the film that you and a few friends made. How did this film and the reactions of different government officials to it inspire your interest in government and politics; would you also credit it as one of your inspirations for running for office?

Cao: It felt surreal to know that what we did in fifth grade for the Carter Center was meaningful and had an impact. Film is one of my deepest loves and I credit a significant part of my desire to run to the media that I’ve created and have consumed (I recommend Bobby Kennedy for President; it’s on Netflix), and also of course, my AP Government teacher.

(For reference, when they were in fifth grade, Cao and some friends made a film about how filtering straws could help to eradicate Guinea worm disease in Africa. The film made it all the way to former President Jimmy Carter and his staff, as well as health ministers in the countries where the disease was affecting many people.)

Sheridan: What would you say are the most important issues to you, and can you explain why they are important, as well as your policy on each?

Cao: Sustainability is the overarching theme of our campaign as no dreams, plans, ideas matter if we do not have a tomorrow. We knew what our district had wanted as soon as we filed as we have seen the impact of our current legislator’s decisions regarding those areas. I go walking with my campaign manager a lot and we have had to cross marshlands & jungles to get to point B from point A. We need to sustain the environment, which is why I’m especially pushing for more investment in our sidewalks and bike lanes. It’ll be easier to pass a bill championing this as it’s more bipartisan, and realistic within a two-year term.

Growing up as an Asian-American, I rarely saw the history of groups that looked like me or other minorities in the curriculum. I believe that a lot of our polarization stems from fear which stems from ignorance. If we have a lot of subconscious biases alleviated through diversified education, we can have a socially sustainable world.

Sheridan: Can you break-down your plan to bring more high-tech job growth to Ohio?

Cao: We need to have an incentive for more tech companies to move their manufacturing and production to our Buckeye state. Historically, we have had officials in the past century pushing companies away, but our prosperity will come back. We need to invest more in STEM education and provide the workforce for more companies like Intel to move their manufacturing to Ohio. Natural state revenue and reallocated funds will provide for that. Just in our redistricting mess alone, officials on the Redistricting Commission have wasted tens of millions of taxpayer dollars that was there, that could have been used for other areas.

Sheridan: As someone who is just entering the world of politics, what advantages/disadvantages will you have compared to your opponents who have experience in the political realms?

Cao: We definitely have been conscious about the greater press coverage that we get in comparison to our opponents (an unconventional campaign like ours does not come around so often). The age that I’m running at is definitely a double-edged sword. It goes for us and against us. I’ve had skeptics tell us that we should wait our turn and that we have no “experience”. I don’t think that we will have a future where we can wait our turn with the current road that we’re heading down towards…I still stand by the belief that the time is now for action. If we had no life experience, what would the almost two decades we have lived in represent then? If we were to go off the basis of age, why not pitch the oldest person in each district to run? The point is, everyone needs a voice in government. There’s a reason why Ohio lets us run.

Sheridan: What kind of advantage does being in high school and a member of Generation Z have when campaigning to get the votes of younger citizens?

Cao: Thanks to Tinker v. Des Moines, I can wear my campaign badge at school and talk to people about the campaign in between classes. Being in high school has been super helpful for getting the word out of our movement out there, not just to younger people, but also to parents. Our campaign was touched upon in our school’s magazine, which had copies circulated around town. I saw one at the dentist the other day!

Sheridan: If elected, you would be the youngest state legislator in US history. What message do you have to young people looking to get involved in politics?

Cao: Always hold your ground and stick true to yourself: don’t do it in the interest of self. The people that I have met in politics, they call it the “arena” for a reason because there will always be waves of criticism. Against such forces, as long as you stick true to the people and have solutions to fight for, for these constituents. Everything will be a lot easier. If you have the chance to get involved, get involved! There will almost never be the right time one might expect.