Sunday, July 18, 2004

They're young, savvy, hip. They're the government

Under-35s turn to politics to change their world

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece is one of many under-35 councilmembers leading the city. She was elected at age 28.
WASHINGTON - They sound like candidates for MTV's The Real World: A 24-year-old who watches ultimate fighting. A 33-year-old hip-hop fan who hits dance clubs. A 23-year-old graduate student who hikes and camps.

But they're remaking the world.

They're people younger than 35 who have won public office. They're young, and they're the government.

An estimated 800 politicians are younger than 35, from city council to Congress. They represent every party and race. Some are second-generation politicians. Others come from families who stayed out of government.

The Cincinnati City Council is notable for its youth. Under age 35 are Vice Mayor Alicia Reece and council- members Sam Malone, David Pepper, Laketa Cole and John Cranley. Cranley was the subject of an MTV documentary in 2000 when he ran for Congress at age 26 and lost to Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.

In Kentucky, young politicians include Alex Edmondson, a Covington City commissioner; Kentucky secre- tary of state Trey Grayson, of Park Hills; and Adam Koenig, a Kenton County commissioner.

For Reece, politics meant passing out Reese's Peanut Butter Cups when her father, Steven, ran for City Council.

Here is a look at some rising young politicians:

Alicia Reece
Vice mayor, city of Cincinnati
Elected: November 1999 at age 28
Party: Democrat
Age: 33
Real job: Vice president of a marketing and consulting company
Family: Single
Web site

Stephanie Herseth
U.S. representative for South Dakota
Elected: June 2004
Party: Democrat
Age: 33
Real job: Congresswoman
Family: Single
Web site

Gabrielle Giffords
Arizona state senator
Elected: November 2000 to state House at age 30, November 2002 to state Senate.
Party: Democrat
Age: 34
Real job: Real-estate agent
Family: Single
Web site

Kevin Vonck
Office: Newark, Del., city councilman
Elected: April 2004
Party: Independent
Age: 23
Real job: Doctoral student
Family: Single
Web site

Jason West
Mayor, New Paltz, N.Y.
Elected: May 2003
Party: Green
Age: 27
Real job: House painter
Family: Single
Web site

Adam Putnam
Office: U.S. representative from Florida
Elected: November 2000 at age 26
Party: Republican
Age: 29
Real job: Congressman
Family: Wife, three daughters
Web site

Ryan Hersha
Battle Creek, Mich., city commissioner
Elected: November 2003
Party: Democrat
Age: 31
Real job: English teacher, Kellogg Community College
Family: Single.
Web site

Bill Baroni
New Jersey General Assembly
Elected: November 2003
Party: Republican
Age: 32
Real job: Lawyer, law professor at Seton Hall University
Family: Single
Web site
•  National Conference of State Legislatures.
• U.S. Term Limits.
• The Young Elected Leaders Project.
• Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 12 were 35 or younger. Thomas Lynch and Edward Rutledge, both of South Carolina, were 27.
• Of the 40 delegates at the U.S. constitutional convention, 11 were 35 or younger. The youngest was 27-year-old Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey.
• Of the past 20 presidents, 12 won their first elected office when they were 35 or younger. Theodore Roosevelt was 24 when he won a New York State Assembly seat.
• Of all the presidents, John F. Kennedy was the youngest elected, at age 43. Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House at age 42 after the assassination of William McKinley.
Sources: Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, Guinness World Records 2004
Desire for change spurs political careers
As she helped her father on the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns, she knew politics would be her life.

The Democrat was elected to City Council at age 28. Now 33, she campaigns where young voters are - even at happy hours or a late-night dance party. And fellow young people have joined her on City Council.

"We had lost the energy of young voters because they were disconnected from City Hall," she said. "If we have young voters disconnected from City Hall, in the future we would have a dying city."

The unpredictability of government appeals to some young politicians.

"Anything can change at any given time. That's what I like about politics," said Andres "Andy" Martinez, a 24-year-old fan of ultimate fighting, an extreme martial art in which almost anything is allowed short of eye gouging. The Democrat is a firefighter who won a seat on the Driscoll, Texas, city commission in April.

"The mayor used to change Andy's diapers," said City Administrator Rachel Saenz, who believes Martinez's presence attracts young residents to meetings that had been sparsely attended.

The most comprehensive study of young politicians, based on 2002 data, found 814 of them - about one of 20 elected officials. There's no data for other years.

But anecdotal evidence shows that some young people - some inspired by the Iraq war, some by local issues - are choosing politics to change their world.

Voters are responding.

• In Greenville, Miss., voters last year picked a 28-year-old woman, Democrat Heather Hudson, as mayor of the city of 41,630, the Delta's largest.

• In Newark, Del., voters in April put 23-year-old graduate student and independent Kevin Vonck on City Council. Vonck started his career on an obscure environmental board.

• In South Dakota, voters last month chose 33-year-old Stephanie Herseth, a Democrat, as their sole voice in the U.S. House.

Herseth said she tapped the state's network of young professionals, especially useful in the largest county, Minnehaha County, home to Sioux Falls.

Start young, keep going

Of the 20 most recent presidents, 12 won their first elected office before age 35.

Republican Theodore Roosevelt was 24 when he won a New York State Assembly seat. President Clinton, a Democrat, was Arkansas attorney general at 30.

Republican and Democratic presidential candidates this year tried to start early - though both lost. President Bush ran for Congress at age 32; Sen. John Kerry ran at 28.

"If history is any guide, it's likely that some of tomorrow's presidents, senators and governors are among the current crop of young elected leaders," said Ruth Mandel, director of Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics and its Young Elected Leaders Project.

Her report will be released this month. Highlights show most young politicians are white, male, Christian, wealthier than the public, and from homes where politics is the family business.

One development opening the door to young politicians nationwide helped Reece: term limits.

The two youngest legislatures in the nation are Florida and Ohio, states where term limits have taken effect, expelling more senior politicians.

In 2000, an 18-year-old, Democrat Derrick Seaver of Minster, Ohio, won an open seat in Ohio's House. Even today, at 22, he is the youngest state legislator in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"If you have more churning, more open seats, you're going to get more people from all different age groups in," said Paul Jacob, spokesman for U.S. Term Limits, which advocates term limits for politicians.

The National Conference of State Legislatures is in the middle of a study of term limit's effects.

So far, "there's not a tidal wave of real young legislators," the conference's Tim Storey said. As of January, fewer than 1 percent of state legislators were younger than 30.

Not your father's politician

Young politicians say they differ from older counterparts, especially on technology.

They're religious about answering e-mail and almost every one has a Web page, often separate from the standard-issue government one. Reece's page features polls and animation.

Young politicians also think further into the future. They look out 20 or 50 years because they will be alive.

A recent congressional report pushing back Social Security's bankruptcy a decade to 2052 was welcomed as a sign of no crisis.

"For my generation, those (10) years don't matter. It's still not going to be there," said Rep. Adam Putnam, 29, the youngest member of Congress and a Republican from Bartow, Fla.

Like their generation, young politicians tend to be more open-minded toward gay rights.

"It's inevitable that we'll have gay marriage in this country, because it's a generational question," said Jason West, the 27-year-old Green Party mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., who defied state law by marrying gay couples.

"Give it 10 or 20 years when we're holding state legislatures and Congress. It will just be a non-issue."


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