App State student sets record as youngest-ever House of Delegates candidate


Taylor Ward

Zach Coltrain, a 20-year-old music major at App State, is youngest ever to run for Virginia’s House of Delegates, pictured at Durham Park.

James Moser, Reporter

A 20-year-old App State student is making history as the youngest ever candidate to run for office in the Virginia House of Delegates. 

Zachary Coltrain, a music therapy major, is campaigning in Virginia’s 98th House of Delegates district, one of 100 representative districts in the state.

Coltrain said he was first inspired to enter the world of politics at age 15 when an interaction with then-congressman Scott Taylor left him feeling disillusioned. 

“We started to have a dialogue and I gave him a little bit of context about who I was,” Coltrain said. “As we were talking, he pauses and goes, ‘Wait, you’re not 18?’” 

Once Taylor realized that Coltrain could not yet vote, Coltrain said, Taylor immediately got up and left the table, abandoning their conversation. 

“That caused me to work for my first campaign, which was for his challenger, Elaine Luria,” Coltrain said. 

With assistance from campaign workers like Coltrain, Luria defeated Taylor. 

At Coltrain’s high school, a legal studies program furthered his interest in politics and campaign work. This education, alongside his prior experience, landed him an official internship with Luria’s team during the next election cycle.

Coltrain said he gained valuable experience in campaign management and political networking during his time as an intern. His involvement didn’t stop there. 

“I was able to convince a few friends to help me,” Coltrain said. “After that we did a state delegate campaign.” 

He has also participated in local politics, namely a city council campaign.

Coltrain’s major allows him to help people in other ways, too. As the recipient of an endowed scholarship from the Hayes School of Music, he pursues his passion while simultaneously working on his campaign. 

“I was always attached to music,” Coltrain said. “I knew it was something that I had to continue.”

Coltrain said he views music therapy as a form of “mental health care” whereby he can give patients the “comfort of what they know.”

Balancing 16 credit hours in addition to a full-fledged political campaign requires “self-discipline and a tight schedule,” Coltrain said. On top of it all, he spends his weekends working a BobaBing food truck.

Speaking on his job with BobaBing, Coltrain said they “really support” his campaign.

Coltrain elaborated on his time management.

“Campaign work is in between the gaps and at night mostly,” Coltrain said. “I am slowly finding a balance as I have become more communicative with my professors, and they have supported me as a student and candidate.”

In some cases, Coltrain has been able to blend coursework together with his political platform. 

“I get to help plan our Women Composers Concert next semester and make it a fundraiser event for reproductive charity,” Coltrain said. 

Coltrain is on track to graduate from App State in May 2024. He has acknowledged the possibility of a fall 2024 graduation should he be elected.

The 98th House of Delegates district, shortened as VA-98, encompasses the various localities of Virginia Beach — and Coltrain calls it home. VA-98 has been in Republican Keith Hodges’ hands since 2011.

“This is a very interesting district because it really pulls together folks from all over the city,” Coltrain’s campaign website reads. “I want to be a voice for those in the district who haven’t felt truly represented by their current delegate.”

Coltrain’s main opponent, 68-year-old Republican Barry Knight, currently represents VA-81. The 2020 redrawing of districts incorporated much of VA-81 into VA-98, which is why he’ll be facing Coltrain in the 2023 election. 

“He is a millionaire. He owns his own helicopter,” Coltrain said. 

In contrast, Coltrain is running a grassroots campaign that necessitates close relationships with advisors and potential supporters.

Coltrain launched his campaign after a call from William Reid, a political activist whose father, also named William Reid, became the first African-American elected to the Virginia General Assembly during Reconstruction. 

Reid encouraged Coltrain to run in VA-98 as part of the 90 for 90 initiative, which aims to supply a Democratic challenger in all Republican-controlled districts.

Coltrain is running on a platform that emphasizes youth involvement in politics, environmental protection, intersectionality, reproductive health, cannabis legalization and increased special education services. 

His background in music therapy has led him to seek greater resources for public schools.

“I think the actual part of education that deserves airtime on a General Assembly floor or in a school board is ‘How can we make these services more accessible?’” Coltrain said.

Music has served as a medium of expression for Coltrain. Now, he wishes to do the same for the diverse population of VA-98.

“By and large, regardless of what issue we talk about, my whole point is to be there and be representative of people I’ve lived around forever,” Coltrain said. 

As the successor to the House of Burgesses, a prominent colonial assembly and first elected legislature in the New World, the House of Delegates boasts a long political history. It was established in October 1776, not long after the House of Burgesses had its final meeting during May of the same year. 

Despite political advocacy on the part of an increasingly perturbed generation of young adults, members of the House of Delegates have an average age no lower than about 54 years old. This reflects a nation-wide trend whereby politicians are increasing in age. The average congressperson in the House of Representatives is currently 58.4 years old, and the average senator is 64.3

In response to the inclining age of politicians, Coltrain emphasized that his “whole team is under 25.” Coltrain said he hopes to impart the skills and experience he has developed through years of campaign work by collaborating with other college-age activists.

One of these activists is Eric Hesslink, a 20-year-old App State student majoring in political science. Hesslink manages the finances for Coltrain’s campaign, which includes reaching out to donors.

“Zach is a very driven person,” Hesslink said. “He works extremely hard to reach his goals.”

Hesslink is Coltrain’s roommate. The two are both committed to expanding student engagement in public administration.

“A big thing for us is that he is so young, and putting out a voice for Gen Z is certainly important,” Hesslink said.

Coltrain’s campaign manager, 20-year-old Haley Gammage, expressed similar sentiments.

“Zach is just very passionate about what he’s doing,” Gammage said. “He’s always been that way.” 

Coltrain and Gammage attended the same high school.

“Making a difference and actually seeing change is something he really strives to do,” Gammage said.

Though Gammage admitted the whole experience “still doesn’t feel real” sometimes, she and Coltrain, as well as the rest of the team, are working across state lines to make it a reality.

“I really think that Gen Z needs to get involved in politics so that we have a voice for our own future,” Gammage said.

As of November 2021, the youngest person to have earned a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates was 26-year-old Nadarius Clark. If Coltrain wins his election, he will set a new record at 21 years old.

General elections will occur Nov. 7, 2023, by which time Coltrain will be fully eligible to serve as a delegate.

Correction: A previous version of this article listed specific previous counties in the district. It has since been fixed.