While his classmates were busy studying and thinking about colleges, Sam Cao had his eyes on another prize: becoming the youngest-ever candidate to run for the Ohio State Legislature.
A resident of Mason, Ohio — a town that has received political attention as the hometown of John Boehner, former Speaker of the House, and presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy — Cao has been intimately connected with politics from a young age. In the fifth grade, his project on Guinea Worm PSAs received the attention of former President Carter and was awarded high accolades.
He has also been involved with social and civil rights movements, tracing back to his birthplace of Atlanta, where he was inspired by Congressman John Lewis to serve his communities — both legislative and Asian American.
After witnessing the political panic in his school district and on social media during COVID-19, Cao decided to run for a seat in the statehouse.
“These aren’t normal times,” Cao said. “I figured, why not? Why not put my name on the ballot, give it a shot, and see if I can be part of something bigger than myself?”
Despite being just 17 years old during his campaign, Cao treated his age and status as a high school student as an advantage. He believes that “age is a strength.”
As a high school student, Cao found that his interactions with teachers and fellow students from underfunded public schools had given him a unique perspective on what future generations need from the state.
“Obviously, a statehouse full of 17–, 18– or 19-year-olds would be a disaster — it would destroy the state,” Cao said. “But on the flip side, older generations simply do not understand the changes — such as climate change and environmental policies — that younger generations are calling for. These policies come through a coalition of older and younger generations legislating together.”
Two other Ohio teenagers ran for a seat at the statehouse that same year: Samuel Lawrence, a Miami University student, and Rhyan Goodman, a student at Ohio University. Both ran as Democrats and were two years older than Cao.
Reflecting on his campaign, Cao enjoyed the ups and downs that came with it. He found the positive online reception from his district and the Asian American community in Ohio, along with the thrill of breaking donation thresholds, to be “exciting and supportive.”
“Seeing the support has motivated me to keep fighting,” Cao said.
He also recalls grappling with national events like the Uvalde shooting and Supreme Court decisions during his campaign trail, which “reminded me of why I was campaigning in the first place,” Cao said.
“We needed to accelerate the change because the current system wasn’t working,” he said.
In addition to these incidents, Cao also had to reckon with the COVID-19 pandemic that had caused damage to the Asian American community in Ohio. During his time in lockdown, Cao spent long hours in introspection, reflecting on what it means to be Asian American.
“I used to look at my identity as a hole, but because of COVID, I began to embrace it,” Cao said. “Falling down the rabbit holes of Wikipedia, I read about the accounts and profiles of Asian Americans who made it in the US, but were smudged over in the history books.”
Cao immersed himself in the stories of Hiram Fong, the first Asian American Senator, and Wing F. Ong, the first Asian American ever elected to public office.
Yet Cao said he is still trying to “figure out” his identity. With the support of the Asian Americans in Ohio’s District 56, Cao has treated his campaign as his first step in redefining what it means to be Asian American and to reverse negative stereotypes from cartoons and media.
“One of the biggest stereotypes is that Asian Americans put their heads down and never try to break into leadership,” Cao said. “I’m here to break that, and I’m excited to see what Asian Americans and immigrants have been doing for the next generation.”
Cao also holds his Midwestern heritage as something he deeply values, making it one of the focal points of his campaign.
“The Midwest has a lot to offer, and it’s the people that make it special. Everyone is very connected with each other, which gives it a comfortable, homey vibe that I appreciate,” Cao said. “But our elected officials are pushing for young people to leave Ohio through attacks on public education, the privatization of public entities […] What can be done is to invest in public infrastructure and education.”
Though Cao ultimately lost in the Democratic primary to Joy Bennett, who is currently a Mason City Councilwoman, he remains committed to politics and civic engagement.
He is currently studying at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business and is the Ohio Chapter Lead of Voters of Tomorrow and board member of Leaders We Deserve — both progressive organizations dedicated to increasing Gen Z political participation.
He has now also taken the mantle of filmmaker and author, directing political documentaries from his YouTube channel (which he would like to remain anonymous), and writing a book about Asian Americans who have broken the Bamboo Ceiling in politics, from Dalip Singh Saund, the first Asian American ever elected to Congress, to Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress and the author of Title IX.
Cao urges his fellow Gen Zers to get civically active in their own communities.
“Use your youth as your strength to build a better community, and this means talking to your friends from across the aisle to create change, fast,” Cao said. “I’m a big believer in never giving up, despite any losses, and remember: you’re never too young to start anything.”