HOUSTON — Last Thursday had already been pretty hectic for Marcel McClinton before a man tried to stab him.
The 18-year-old gun violence prevention activist is running for city council in Houston, but he turned up late to a political breakfast, where he served biscuits to black seniors and asked for their vote. Then he drove back across town to grab the business cards he’d forgotten at home, headed to city hall to pore through donor contributions, and sat for a photo shoot and hourlong interview with BuzzFeed News.
Then McClinton arrived at a community meeting that ended up being a register to vote event — which he can’t campaign at, so he left quickly. He then dashed to a candidate forum on the other side of Houston to give a quick stump speech to local Democrats, before speeding down the road to an endorsement screening for an Asian American PAC.
On his way home, he pulled into a Starbucks on Memorial Drive for an iced latte, when he heard shouts for help. When he came to assist, a man who had just stolen beer from the gas station next door lunged at him with a knife, just inches from his face. The man continued to swing the knife at McClinton, while the teen called 911. He then helped chase the thief into bushes across the road to keep him away from confused onlookers who didn’t seem to grasp that the man had a weapon.
“I didn’t want him to go on a cutting spree,” said McClinton. “And if he had a gun, we’d be dead.”
Guns are something McClinton thinks about a lot. After surviving a mass shooting near his church in May 2016, he helped to organize the March for Our Lives Houston rally, where 15,000 people turned out in Texas to protest gun violence.
“What shaped my politics was the Parkland shooting,” said McClinton. ‘It was watching people my age on TV after the most traumatic experience of their life demanding fucking change. They reminded me of me. They inspired the hell out of me.”
Gun violence prevention activism took over his last two years of high school. McClinton, a former Trump supporter, missed class to attend meetings in his role as a student representative on the mayor’s commission to prevent gun violence. He traveled the country giving talks, went viral for his Twitter activism, and campaigned for Beto O’Rourke during his 2018 Senate run.
Now, it’s his turn. McClinton is the first teen to emerge from the March for Our Lives movement and run for government office, challenging a conservative incumbent for an at-large seat on the Houston City Council on Nov. 5. BuzzFeed News spent three days following McClinton as he campaigned — going to information nights about Houston’s public transportation and staff meetings about yard signs — until about an hour before the knife attack happened.
Lately teens have turned into progressive political heroes — from Greta Thunberg on climate change to Emma González on guns — calling out older generations on social media and in public spaces. But does the country’s biggest political youth movement of recent years translate into elected office — particularly when a city council focuses more on waste disposal than weapons?
Are Gen Z activists ready to make the shift from organizers to elected officials, with all the scrutiny, donation begging, and campaign trail exhaustion it entails?
And is McClinton the man — or teen — for the job?
It was Beto O’Rourke who convinced McClinton to run for office.
“I’m not a fan of any elected official, except Beto,” said McClinton. He drives all over Houston with a “Beto for Texas” bumper sticker on his car. He became a Beto supporter following the shooting at Santa Fe High School, an hour’s drive outside of Houston, where 10 people were killed.
McClinton turned up in Santa Fe after the shooting to help a few interested students and parents organize with March for Our Lives and other gun violence prevention groups. One was Rhonda Hart, whose 14-year-old daughter, Kimberly Vaughan, was killed in the shooting. O’Rourke reached out to them to hear their stories, and they started volunteering for him. Both appear in the HBO documentary Running With Beto, excitedly waiting for the victory party in El Paso on the day of the midterms.
Devastated at O’Rourke’s narrow loss, they gathered for lunch the following day with the Democrat’s campaign manager, Jody Casey, who told them not to stop fighting. A few weeks later, Beto himself had a phone call with McClinton.“Y’all need to run, do something now,” McClinton said O’Rourke told him. “If you feel a calling to do so, go pursue it.”
And so, in February, while still in high school and months away from being eligible to even vote, McClinton announced he was running for city council.
“Following our first meeting at a gun violence prevention discussion outside of Santa Fe,” O’Rourke told BuzzFeed News in a statement, “Marcel and I commited to one another that we’d never stop fighting to end this epidemic of gun violence. And that’s exactly what Marcel has done each day since — from being a leader in March for Our Lives and a powerful voice for his community, to getting involved in campaigns, and now stepping up to run his own race for city council.”
McClinton chose to run for a citywide council seat against incumbent Michael Kubosh because he wanted to directly challenge the right-wing official.
As he began his campaign, his ongoing political activism meant he continued to miss a lot of classes at Stratford High School on the west side of Houston. “You were given special circumstances that not a lot of people were given,” Christine Walker, who taught him global business in his senior year, told him when they caught up for a chat last week. It was his first return to the school since graduating in May.
“Let’s be honest, they didn’t want to be the [school] district that didn’t help you,” said Walker, pointing out that it wouldn’t have been good PR to ban a student from advocating against school shootings.
Shortly after graduation, McClinton quit his part-time job with Starbucks to focus on his city council campaign.
“He’s not normal,” said Kristy Schaper, one of his high school business teachers, about his political activism. She’s known McClinton since he was in eighth grade and says he’s someone who takes action. “People say stuff,” she said. “He goes for it.”
McClinton is the son of a white German woman who shocked her parents when she fell in love with a black Army officer from Louisiana. After years of a long-distance relationship, his mother finally moved to Houston, but the pair split when Marcel was a toddler.
He and his older sister, Jasmin, were raised primarily by their mom, a school bus driver. McClinton still lives at home with his mom, whom he calls his “ride or die,” although due to her early-morning school run and his late-night community events they often only see each other for church on Sundays.
On Memorial Day in 2016, he and his mother sheltered inside the Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, while a man shot and killed one person and injured six others at a nearby car wash. A police car responding to the shooting had 21 bullet holes in it; a police helicopter was struck five times. McClinton had been teaching Sunday school to young children when the shooting began, and spent an hour trying to keep them quiet during the attack while the man roamed the area nearby with an AR-15.
McClinton had tried to move on and just forget about it. During the 2016 primaries, he interned for the Harris County Republican Party, hoping that Ted Cruz would win the Republican nomination. He said his mindset then was “You're not Texan if you're not a Republican.”
That September, the Houston Chronicle interviewed the then-15-year-old on his views when he attended a Trump event. "When I get out of high school, what I really want is job security, keeping the country safe and a good economy and Hillary Clinton isn't offering any of those things," McClinton said at the time. "Security in every aspect of the country."
And for McClinton, who entered middle school the year the Sandy Hook shooting stunned the world, that also meant security from mass shootings. Ever so slowly, his thoughts on gun laws began changing, particularly after he saw how AR-15s impacted the bodies of people injured in his church shooting. After Trump’s election, McClinton struggled to justify the president’s increasingly tough policies, such as the Muslim ban, and began questioning the Republican beliefs he’d always held. During the March for Our Lives Houston rally in May 2018, McClinton publicly turned down a GOP internship. Within weeks, he met with O’Rourke and began supporting Democrats publicly.
“My issue is forever going to be gun violence, like, no matter what I’m doing with my life,” he told BuzzFeed News. “If I'm an accountant in 10 years, I want to be the dad member of Moms Demand Action.”
Gun violence isn’t traditional city council politics. When BuzzFeed News spoke with voters on the campaign trail in Houston, they were much more likely to name property taxes, fixing the roads, and flood mitigation as their highest priorities for the city.
“I think he’s running for the wrong position,” said Michaele Villaseñor, a 67-year-old who turned up to the Spring Branch Dems Candidate Forum on the evening of Sept. 26 at a local community center. Yes, McClinton wants action on climate change, but she was eager to hear which candidates were focused on city planning for flooding — Tropical Storm Imelda inundated the city last month, and Hurricane Harvey just two years ago — and holding developers accountable for building in floodplains.
“I agree we need to do something about climate change and guns,” said Villaseñor, “but the city council is not for him.”
McClinton hadn’t RSVP’d for the candidate forum, meaning there was no name tag waiting on a table for him and he wasn’t mentioned in the flyers being passed around the room where a few dozen older Democrats had gathered. Pepperoni pizza and garlic rolls were sitting on one table, candidates’ flyers sat on another. McClinton had only just received approval for the budget to print out cards, so he didn’t have any.
But McClinton, slick and confident, soon crouched down and spoke to voters before the forum started, including Villaseñor, telling them specifically that he was up against a conservative Republican and needed these Democrats’ help.
That may have been enough to sway Villaseñor. She called his criticisms of Kubosh, who has held the seat since 2014, “compelling” and said she found McClinton “young and energetic.”
“I’ll look at him,” she said.
Running against an incumbent is never easy, but it’s especially tough when it’s a run-of-the-mill Texas conservative who doesn’t make many waves.
For decades, Kubosh ran a bail bonds business, and his biggest claim to political fame in Houston is leading the vote to end red light cameras before he entered office. He is also usually critical of the mayor, who is already a controversial figure in the city and facing an extremely tight mayoral race predicted this year. Other than that, though, he’s hardly a big or controversial name.
“He has not said or done things as a council member to draw a disproportionate amount of attention to himself,” Charles Kuffner, who founded the Texas political blog Off the Kuff, told BuzzFeed News. “People know who he is but don’t have a reason off the top of their heads to be mad at him.”
The Houston Chronicle named the Kubosh challenge as one of their competitive races to watch, although Kuffner questioned that. “I’m going to need to see some evidence of actual campaigning from Marcel McClinton,” he wrote.
Money, as it always in politics, is the biggest issue. A fundraiser for McClinton in Virginia by O’Rourke supporters raised over $3,700 on Sep. 28, he said. (He was supposed to attend but turned up late to the airport and the flight was overbooked.) His campaign manager, Elvonte Patton, said McClinton has raised over $50,000 in total.
In contrast, Kubosh took out a loan of $276,000 to fund his campaign, according to July 2019 campaign finance reports posted by Kuffner. (Kubosh did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for an interview.) At the time of those reports, McClinton had raised $25,000. The other major competitor in the race, Janaeya Carmouche, had raised $8,900.
“Biggest thing is, he needs to raise money,” said Almeda Dent, the vice president of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, who is advising his campaign. McClinton is supposed to be making dozens of donor calls every day but dreads making them (in three days, BuzzFeed News did not see him make any). Dent said he seems “embarrassed to ask” for large contributions, but spends too long on the phone to people who only give him $5 or $20. On the plus side,“nobody is going to give you $5 and vote against you,” said Dent.
The aim for Carmouche and McClinton is to keep Kubosh under 50% of the vote in November, sending him to a runoff election in December. “I’m not worried about it at all,” said McClinton.
His own adviser doesn’t think he’ll win.
“It’s his first race — he just doesn’t realize how serious it is,” said Dent when she called to go over his schedule for the week ahead. “He’s still a kid.”
Dent has worked on over 60 elections for Texas Democrats, and she lectures McClinton like an adoring but frustrated grandmother (he calls her “Miss Almeda”). She declined to give her age but said she volunteered on the 1972 congressional campaign of Barbara Jordan, a black Democrat trailblazer, when she was in college.
Dent organizes the teen candidate’s calendar and attends many events with him, introducing him to powerful local political players, many of whom only know him as “the 18-year-old running for city council.” On Thursday, she snuck him into a seniors breakfast where candidates who had sponsored the event paid $800 to speak, but she had McClinton serving eggs and talking to voters for free.
When they got together for a meeting at the Texas Justice Center Wednesday afternoon, Dent immediately started listing McClinton’s errors. He needs to touch people’s arms with his left hand while he shakes hands with his right, said Dent, pulling herself out of her chair and demonstrating to him how to do it. Look people in the eyes until they turn away first, she declared. Ask them directly to support him by voting for him. Arrive early to events. When he is trying to get endorsements, don’t insult his opponent and instead just offer up his own ideas. Stick to his calendar. Follow up if people are supposed to send him things and don’t miss any deadlines. And, most importantly, be his passionate and charming self.
“It’s hair-pulling sometimes,” Dent told BuzzFeed News. She was referring to one incident where McClinton missed a deadline for an interview because the reporter only contacted Democrat candidates who’d voted in previous elections, and he’d been too young to vote. She was angry that McClinton hadn’t followed up himself.
“Next race he’ll be much better,” she said.
Although McClinton is a teenager, he doesn’t get many chances to actually be a teenager. His “core four” of friends all moved out of Houston to go to college, leaving him alone. Nearly all his social interactions with his friends are now via text or social media.
During the summer he’d been able to campaign all day and then hang out with them at night, playing the occasional game of basketball. But now that they’re away at school, he rarely socializes. He deleted Snapchat for a few weeks because he found himself spending too much time on it — “this app is not getting me votes” was the logic — but he downloaded it again to keep in touch with friends.
As they start college, his own path is diverging. “My friends aren't interested in talking to me about the drainage system in Houston,” said McClinton.”Or my proposed budget for 2020 or how to negotiate the police contract.”
The end of summer, with his friends leaving the city, hit McClinton hard. “It wasn’t until August that I was like, Damn, I’m now 18,” said McClinton.
Instead, it feels like he’s sacrificing his youth for the greater good. “Morally as a human being I cannot wait four years before I start adding my voice into this mix,” he said. “The problems are going to get worse.”
Every day, he calls his local federal representative, Republican Dan Crenshaw, asking for him to pursue impeachment against the president. He refers to the calls as his “ mental health routine.”
But loneliness isn’t the only personal cost he’s paying. As a black gun violence prevention activist in Texas, McClinton has long worried about his personal safety. He’s planning to obtain his concealed carry license. He’s received threats, including a dead cat on his doorstep and chalk arrows pointing at the house. But the stabbing incident unnerved him.
“Can’t put it into words. This has fucked me up,” he texted BuzzFeed News the night it happened.
Houston Police ultimately charged the suspect with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated robbery. McClinton tried to get back on the campaign trail the next day but called it off after realizing he couldn’t even fake a smile.“It’s been tougher than the shooting was,” he said in a phone call five days later.
On Tuesday, he began working again, finalizing designs for the campaign flyers that were supposed to be ordered last week. But as he drove down a neighborhood street near his home just after 5 p.m., his vision started blurring. Then it went completely white. “I could see nothing,” said McClinton. He pulled over and rolled down the windows, frantically trying to get himself some fresh air.
After about two minutes, his vision slowly returned. He stopped to buy water and began googling eye doctors. He found one open late in downtown Houston who could fit him in. Halfway through the drive, he began losing his vision again.
Excessive stress combined with forgetting to eat can cause temporary blindness, the doctor told him.
In three days, the only food BuzzFeed News saw him eat was the remnants of a McDonald’s drive-thru order, several bottles of Topo Chico sparkling water, and a few bites of breakfast before he went back to shaking hands.
He knows he should slow down. But he doesn’t want another traumatic incident beyond his control to determine his future again, and he refuses to let a knife-wielding stranger’s violence halt his dreams for himself and his city.
“Pick your focus: your mental health or the campaign you’ve been running for months?” asked McClinton. “It’s definitely the campaign.”
But amid the exhaustion and the long solitary days and the safety fears and the need to constantly be “on” as a candidate, he found a glimmer of encouragement from someone who understands the drain of a campaign.
“I have seen [McClinton’s] leadership, his determination and his ability to drive change, and I know we’ll all continue to see that in everything he chooses to do,” said O’Rourke. “I’m grateful that he’s running and know that he’ll be an excellent leader for Houston on the city council.”
“That’s so beautiful,” said McClinton, when BuzzFeed News shared the comments with him as he prepared for a weekend trip to Chicago to speak on a panel about gun violence. “It brought a little tear to my eye.”