In January, the Republican governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback, announced he was leaving office for a position as Donald Trump's Ambassador-at-Large of International Religious Freedom. Since first taking office in 2011, Brownback has become a national hero for small government, pursuing a "red state model" built on massive tax cuts and defunding public services like education and healthcare. "Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy," Brownback promised in a 2012 op-ed. Ultimately, the radical libertarian experiment left the state's economy in shambles. In an attempt to clean up the mess, Brownback's fellow Republicans in the legislature voted in June to override his veto on a bill that would make up for $700 million in lost revenue with $1.2 billion in new taxes.
Aaron Coleman, a 17-year-old community college student from Overland Park, thinks he can do better. He is one of six teenagers – including Joseph Tutera, Jr., 16; Tyler Ruzich, 17; Dominic Scavuzzo, 17 Jack Bergeson, 17; and Ethan Randleas, 18 – that have announced bids for the 2018 gubernatorial race (Lucy Steyer, 17, is running for secretary of state). Kansas is one of two states that have no age requirement for a number of statewide positions. Coleman, running on an "independent progressive" platform, is emphasizing marijuana legalization, a guaranteed living wage, healthcare for all and total reform of a broken political system. "We need to wake up and smell the roses," Coleman said in one selfie campaign video. "We didn't start the fire, but we need to be the firefighters." Rolling Stone caught up with him to talk about life on the campaign trail and how his age – and inexperience – make him the ideal candidate to lead the state of Kansas.
You're running as an Independent write-in. Why did you decide not to file?
It saves me from raising the $2,600. By trying to raise that money, I'd have to take donations, which, in my opinion, are essentially bribes. If you look at some of these career politicians in congress, they get millions of dollars from corporations; they get millions of dollars from the Koch brothers. And then when you look at their voting record, they flip [their vote] because of a donation. It's quid pro quo. I mean, look at the Donald Trump tax cuts. Most of the benefits go to Donald Trump's friends.
So you're not raising any money for your campaign at all?
I just put aside $100 a month from my personal income.
Your father is an Air Force veteran. What does he think about you running?
My dad said he'll vote for me if he thinks I'm the best candidate. He said he's going to research all the candidates.
Who would you have voted for in the last election?
Honestly, I would have rather taken Donald Trump over Clinton because it's better to have a madman who has no clue how government works then have somebody like Clinton who's been in government for 20 years. It's kind of like Bush. He really didn't know how government works, so he really couldn't get some of his crazy ideas done. Trump's really a do-nothing president. [The] only thing I can think of off the top of my head he's actually done is the tax cuts, and tried to repeal Obamacare, which he didn't even do.
During the primaries, I really liked Bernie Sanders. He really seemed like the early candidate. He wanted to raise the minimum wage. And I liked Rand Paul. He was the only candidate who wanted to legalize weed fully. Bernie Sanders would be President right now if he weren't so insistent on using the term Democratic Socialist… I don't consider myself a socialist, or even a democratic socialist, because all it does is make people think you're a communist. Now, on the other hand, I do call myself a progressive, because that's a term that people actually understand. [In] a red state like Kansas, if you use a term like socialist, you're never going to be elected.
Your competitors on the Independent ticket are Greg Orgman [a business man] and Rick Kloos [who works in real estate]. Have you spoken with either of them?
I've tried to contact Greg Orman. He actually sent me a book, hand-signed. Greg Orman is a millionaire… [and] I think the last thing we need is a millionaire in the governor's office. A millionaire doesn't know anything about living paycheck to paycheck. They don't know anything about having to skip meals, [or] having to ration your meals because you don't have enough money to go grocery shopping. I'm sure he never went hungry in his life. He was born wealthy and he's stayed wealthy. He doesn't know anything about how bad the job economy is. He's never had to look for a job. He's always had jobs given to him by other companies.
Legalizing marijuana seems to be high on your priority list. How would you execute that in office?
I can actually [legalize marijuana] without legislation. I know exactly how. The way I would do it is day one, full pardon of all non-violent drug offenders. Essentially, this would make weed de facto legal and it would save our prisons and taxpayers a lot of money. The law would not be enforced because I wouldn't let them. I would just pardon everybody.
You've said the "first step in fixing [Kansas'] broken school system is recognizing cognitive dissonance." Can you elaborate?
I really think [fixing] the education system has to be a two-part plan. One plan [should focus on] how we are going to fix K-12. The second one [is] higher education – that's community college, trade schools, public universities – people don't talk about that at all. Kansas actually ranks number two in the country in K-12 spending. Where is the money going? It's obviously not going to teacher's salaries. I was talking to Thomas Padgett [a 20-year-old candidate for Kansas governor], and he went to a local library and he asked for the budget, the expenses, and the income of his old school district. He found out [that] for every $1.63 allocated to something, 63 cents goes missing. The Kansas taxpayer needs to know where those 63 cents are going. Why do they give so much money to the Superintendent and the school administrators, and they do not even give some teachers a living wage?
The VA did a study on Chapter 35 and the GI bill, and what they found out is that for every $1 we spend on college for veterans, we get $7 back over their lifetime in taxes of that person. I support tuition-free public college, and the way to set that up is having a 50k trust fund that will follow the student for life. I would fund it [with] a $50 an ounce cannabis tax. This would make $200,000,000, just like it did in Colorado.
You're enrolled in community college right now. Did you go to a public high school?
Yeah, I went to Shawnee Mission West. [There] was just really so much wrong with the public school system [that] I just decided it would be better worth my time – instead of finishing my last two years of high school – to just get two years of community college. I'm getting my associate's in liberal arts, and I'm trying to get a G.E.D. [I] have to have [my G.E.D.] by the time of graduation to actually get the [associate's] diploma.
Do you plan on attending university after?
I want to try to go to K.U. or K. State and get a degree in political science, a bachelor's. Then I'll probably get my juris degree—a master's of law—and probably join the military, do my 20 years, and after that, I can just retire. At that point, not only would I be a lawyer, but I would have been serving the American people. I would probably just directly run for governor then. That would be in 2050 or something like that. And if I ran as a Democrat, I would essentially have the nomination down and pat.
Governor Brownback signed 19 pro-life bills into law during his time in office, yet abortion laws seem to be the only major policy you never mention. Why is that?
I ran out of space on my website. Maybe I should have it, but I don't think it's an issue most people care about. Like I said, my phone number is on my Facebook page – you can call me at any time. If they asked me, "Hey, what's your abortion stance," I would just say, "Hey, I like the current policies, I like the current laws, I like the big compromise, I would not make any new legislation."
What are your views on healthcare?
What I'm in favor of is Medicare for all – a single payer healthcare system. I think Obamacare is just a complete fail. I believe Obamacare is a Republican healthcare plan. Because if you look at Mitt Romney… [he] set up a healthcare system in Massachusetts, which I like to call Romneycare. I cannot tell you the difference between Romneycare and Obamacare – so it really would have not made a difference who got elected. Obama's saying he was a progressive, and he sold out. If he were a man of the people, the compromise would have been to have a public opt-in option. But he didn't even fight for that, which makes no sense because at the time, the
Democrats controlled Congress. So they could have absolutely, completely passed any kind of bill they wanted without Republican input. But instead, he said he wanted to make a compromise with them.
How has your experience as a teenager informed your opinions on the minimum?
We need a $10.10 an hour minimum wage. I worked at Burger King, and they really treated me like crap. I mean, I'm not going to go into detail, but they didn't pay me that great, either. They paid me $8.50 an hour, which really is not that much. Then I worked at Olive Garden, and they paid about $13 an hour. With $13 an hour, I could move out on my own, and I wouldn't need a roommate at all. So if other people could get higher paying jobs, not the $8.50 that the fast food restaurants want to pay their workers, then they could just move out of their parents' home. Thirty percent of millennials still live with their parents. It's really a crisis. Millennials can't afford to get a home, they can't afford their apartment, they can't afford to get married, and if they do get married, having kids is completely out of the question unless they want to go bankrupt.
Your stance on guns seems to be the one area in which you're more conservative: You want to demilitarize the police force, yet keep open carry laws for civilians.
I don't think that the police need anything other than a pistol, and maybe a shotgun in the trunk. That's how it's been for hundreds of years; they didn't have guns that could shoot 30 bullets in a couple seconds. I definitely think civilians should have access to military-grade weapons, as long as they're not automatic. I obviously believe we need to have testing in place, background checks, make sure felons aren't getting guns, and make sure the mentally ill aren't getting guns. But if somebody is actually a law-abiding citizen, [and] they aren't a threat to themselves or others, they should absolutely be able to have any kind of weapon they want to defend themselves or go hunting. The only police who have a legitimate reason to have something like an AR-15 are SWAT.
Have you thought about your pick for lieutenant governor?
I want someone my age, somebody who might be a future leader of the country. But people my age, what I found, is they're just really apolitical. If I don't find anybody, I'm probably going to have to make my dad my lieutenant governor.
And your grandmother is your campaign treasurer.
I mean, her job is really easy, because when she files reports, all she has to do is say, "zero, zero, zero, zero." I'm pretty sure she's done filing within, like, 30 seconds.