Born and raised in Blacksburg, young democrat Justin Santopietro is running against Morgan Griffith, (R-Va.) who has represented Virginia’s 9th Congressional District since 2011. Santopietro hopes to address issues in the district such as student debt and opioid epidemic.
“The Congress is so old, and majority white male. It doesn't represent the country in terms of age, in terms of gender, demographics. It's awful, and the results are a product of that,” Santopietro said. “The only way to make progress in the country is to change the people there. You're not going to be able to convince them to change. They are old. They are set in their ways. They have their ideologies and they are not going to change.”
Santopietro is a graduate of Blacksburg High School. He’s had a passion for politics ever since he was young, and as a result, he went to George Washington University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and master’s degree in legislative affairs.
He worked as an intern for Al Franken, the former junior senator from Minnesota, while he was an undergraduate student in fall 2012. Santopietro described his time working for Franken as his “first real experience in government.”
“I heard of him. I liked him, so I applied for his office even though he wasn't my senator, and I got it,” Santopietro said.
After he graduated from college, Santopietro got a temporary job at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an agency created after the financial crisis to regulate financial problems. According to Santopietro, the experience at CFPB showed him the dynamic between a progressive agency and a very conservative Congress. He described his experience as “baptism by fire of political hostility.”
“That was also part of the experience, dealing with a very hostile Republican Congress, especially the House Financial Services Committee, very hostile,” Santopietro said. “They hated everything the bureau was doing. They hated the director. They hated the structure. They hated all the regulations, all the lawsuits.”
The next stop for Santopietro was the Credit Union Association, which lobbies for credit unions. Santopietro said he was dealing with similar issues such as mortgages and credit cards as he was at CFPB, but on the industry side. By being part of the lobbying environment, Santopietro learned more about the process.
“Every lobby group has Democrats and Republicans, so you have to deal with everybody, especially then because Republicans controlled everything,” Santopietro said.
In 2017, Santopietro started to think about running for Congress. He officially announced his run in November of 2017.
“When I was in Washington, the funny thing is, you think you're working in politics, but you're really not because you're not actually talking to people about issues, and that's what politics is,” Santopietro said. “When you're in Washington, you're just talking to the same people over and over again every day. It got boring, and it got annoying.”
Santopietro said there should be more young blood in Congress. He believes that although he is young, he is qualified for the job because of his education and his past experience.
“I have the combination of youth, which is the energy you need to make electoral change, and the actual operation and understanding to be an effective legislator,” Santopietro said. “I am uniquely prepared for this job even though I'm young, but the years I've been working have been focused almost exclusively on this.”
If elected, Santopietro has addressed two major issues he will work to resolve — student debt and the opioid epidemic.
Santopietro believes student debt needs more than just refinancing and a change in interest rates. He described funding high education through lending and giving people loans as “a stupid bad idea to begin with.”
“They started to talk about it (student debt), but they don't understand the serve reduction in quality of life, the emotion burden and the stress coming from having these massive student loans,” Santopietro said. “We are the generation that's facing it, but again we have no representation, so that has to change. You can't take people who haven't lived this experience and expect them to really advocate for it.”
According to Santopietro, the opioid crisis can be addressed through the legalization of marijuana.
“If marijuana had been legal, people would not have gone down that path at all. This is a plant. People don't get high and drive like crazy. They don't get high and jump through a window like with meth. You don't have any liver diseases that comes from just cannabis use, not even smoking,” Santopietro said. “I am an advocate for full legalization like we see in California, Colorado, Washington State.
Virginia Tech and Radford University are two big priorities for Santopietro’s campaign.
“Our generation, we are the biggest voting bloc in the United States, and we have zero representation in Congress,” Santopietro said.
In the June 12 primary, Santopietro will face off against Anthony Flaccavento, who has also filed for the race before the March 29 deadline. Virginians can register to vote online or at their local registrar's office.