Youth in Office
"He was a four letter athlete by the time he was a junior," brags Susan Defillipi of her son, Mike Defillipi. And that's not the half of it. His senior year, Mike Defillipi ran for city councilman in Agawam, Massachusetts. He lost by two votes after a recount. But he's committed to running again. His opponents better watch out, he's in college now. And if a high school diploma and a stellar varsity athletic career can almost win an election, imagine what a college degree in Poly Sci will do. But he's not your stereotypical bleeding-heart liberal teenager either. He's a Republican in a Democratic town. Is he the future of youth politics?
When an American teenager turns 18, the most immediately practiced new legal privilege is smoking. Everyone knows you can vote too, but less than a third do it. To combat this low level of electoral participation, youth-led organizations that assist young people's entrance into electoral politics are springing up across the country from Berkeley, CA to Baton Rouge, LA. But they don't just want to get young people to the polls, they want to help them get into office. By bringing youth perspectives into city council meetings and state legislative sessions, they hope to change youth's common perception of electoral politics as boring, "sold-out", and with limited potential for real change. They're also betting that the more youth gain office, the more young people will feel represented and invested in electoral politics, and start voting more. As the movement gains momentum, several questions arise. Is this a movement, and how serious is it? Is there a common "youth agenda?" Can youth political advocates be non-partisan?
Give the People What They Want...And That Would Be?
Sounding the battle cry, Thomas Breyer, executive director of Party Y, a Los Angeles based consultancy for young politicians, calls the increasing push for young people to run for office "a revolution". Rhett Morris, executive director of Youth Elect, balks at this suggestion. "It hits the media, and it's a good novelty story," say Morris. "Anecdotally, youth politicians are on the increase, but it's not to revolutionary proportions." Since there's been little long-term data kept on youth politicians, it's hard to place things in an historical context.
What constitutes a revolution anyway? How about a big march? David Smith, executive director of Mobilizing America's Youth, a youth politician's advocacy and consultancy birthed in Berkeley, but now based in Washington D.C, is on it. He organized a national march that culminated in Washington D.C. on July 1 of this year. Smith's previous ideas have also included an American Idol style search for promising candidates.
When trying to get young people excited about the squarest of political participation, electoral politics, a little spectacle can't hurt. But if the ideas about process are innovative, while the message stays the same, what's the point? In an era of Jesse "The Body" Ventura and the Arnold "The Governator" Schwarzenegger, are youth just another freak act in the ever-expanding political circus?
No, youth in office aren't clowning around. Peep Jesse Laslovich, 23 years old, serving his second term as a Montana state Congressman (D). He recently sponsored legislation that would restrict police officer's ability to give Minor in Possession citations to young people who are only in the company of those drinking at parties. Not that he drinks. 7up is his party beverage of choice. But he's a young teetotaler on an electoral rampage. He won reelection unopposed and is filing for State Senate this year. "It's kind of funny, but all of a sudden the party has high expectations of you," says Laslovich.
Sound insider? That's the point. "You can stand and yell outside, but if you want to make changes, you have to get inside," says Smith. Preaches Breyer,"If there's nobody out there that's running that you like, don't just sit there and protest on the street. Don't sit out, don't complain, run for office." Contrast that with the mantra of forefather Timothy Leary: "tune in, turn on, drop out", or that generation's caveat, "never trust anyone over 30".
Things done changed. For most youth politicians, they are the only ones younger than 30 in a legislative session. And they want nothing to do with the demonstrations and be-ins that epitomized the political experience for many Baby Boomers.
Consider Joyce Chen. While studying chemistry at Yale University, she also did community service projects in the nearby Dwight neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut. Then she decided to run for Alderman of that neighborhood. In a contest with a Democratic incumbent in a Democratic town, she ran as a Green, and won. So now in addition to her 30-hour a week job, she serves her constituency 20 hours a week, going to meetings, hammering out legislation, and attending community events. "It's a lot of sacrifice, and it's not that glamorous," says Chen. She gets paid $2,000 a year.
Young and Unaligned
"Experience is not all it's cracked up to be," says Breyer. Certainly, youth have a lot to offer to the political process. Young people are generally more open-minded. "Older legislators are set in their ways," says Laslovich. "They don't have the courage to articulate views that aren't widely respected," confirms Chen.
Young people also have fewer responsibilities and more energy. Many candidates are fresh off a college career full of studying all-nighters. Even if they were in the club all night, they were there all night. With more energy, they can campaign harder. Who can walk up and down stairs and hang leaflets faster, you or your parents? Once in office, young people can spend more time serving their community, and for less money, as they don't have a family to support.
It's convincing. Almost makes you want to drop your picket sign and run to the polls and elect a whole bunch of young people. But just because you're both young doesn't mean you have a lot in common. In fact, many youth candidates have platforms that would be indecipherable from your average gray-haired governor. Their campaigns are not aimed at attracting youth votes. They don't pepper their websites with slang, and they're more likely to visit a senior citizen home than a hip-hop show or punk concert. They're serious politicians, and youth aren't serious voters.
Young candidates are all over the political spectrum, as well. "There's more shared sentiment, than shared ideology," says Rhett Morris. Young people's attitudes towards issues of sexual preference are more tolerant than previous generations. But it will be hard to pass legislation until this generation is of political maturity. Polls suggest that top issues for youth include education, juvenile justice and jobs. But solutions are all over the board. "We all agree that more money for education is a good thing, but are vouchers a good thing?" asks Smith. "The political alliances of our day are much more of a matrix than a one-dimensional line." Morris, who has interviewed dozens of young politicians, credits this to emergence of the first post-Cold War generation. True, the dominant ideological divides were tumbling just as today's twenty-somethings were learning to read the newspaper.
Trying to lump youth candidates together, although media compatible, and therefore tempting, is tricky. When Party Y sponsored a debate between some of the youth candidates in the California Gubernatorial race, they sought to hype their stars by having them ride to the debate in a bus together. "But I didn't want to ride in a bus with people who don't believe in public education," said Georgy Russell, a 26 year old software engineer who ran on a liberal platform and participated in the debate. Russell was debating against Brooke Adams, a conservative Republican, and Daniel Watts, who ran as a Green in order to take a stance on student fee increases.
Still, some young politicians are willing to engage in a little non-partisan youth networking. Jesse Laslovich, a Democrat, describes himself as a moderate-liberal, but he recently gave 100 bucks to his friend Joe Hunne, a conservative Republican running for Congress in Michigan. But would he support a young candidate over a Democratic in a close election? "It's a close call," he sighed, "but I'd say I'd go with my party."
As young candidates take aim at higher offices, an organized youth political power base may prove essential, especially when going up against older, richer opponents. Jeff Hoffman has twice run and lost for State Congress in North Dakota. He plans on running again, but vows to do more networking first. "It costs money to run, and you don't make money without networking," says Hoffman.
In November of 2003, Youth Elect hosted a young politicians' conference in Baton Rouge, LA. Young politicians shared their knowledge and experiences with fellow politically passionate youth. It was a major bash of non-partisan age solidarity. "It was amazing to look around the room, and realize that the oldest person in the room was 25 or 26," chuckles Morris. If the initial excitement of these conferences can become a vigorous network, the youth politician will no longer be a cute novelty story. It might be early to talk of a trend, but youth have always been the trendsetters.