In Washington, Millennial Lawmakers Are Reaching Across The Aisle
Nine of the 147 members of the state legislature in Washington are under 34 years old — putting them in the “millennial” generation.
These millennials are bucking some of the recent polling about their generation — that they don’t like traditional politics, or identify as either Republican or Democrat (according to the Pew Research Center), or that they don’t trust the government (per a recent Harvard study).
These young lawmakers are trying to encourage other millennials to get involved. And they’re also finding some generational common ground across party lines.
From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network reports.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well now to part two of our series on millennials with a look at nine Washington state lawmakers who are under 34. These millennials are bucking some of the recent polling about their generation, that they don't like politics, or identify as either republican or democrat. From the Here and Now Contributor's Network, Austin Jenkins reports from Olympia, Washington.
AUSTIN JENKINS, BYLINE: It's not every day the four youngest members of Washington state's legislature gather in one place. So as they sat down recently for an interview, an official legislative photographer was snapping photos.
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JENKINS: If you could see this photo, it would show four fresh faced young men in suits and ties sitting around a small table. After the photographer left and the door shut, I asked this quartet of millennial lawmakers to introduce themselves.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE HANS ZEIGER: So I'm Hans Zeiger from Puyallup, 29 years old, just turned 29, and party is Republican.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE BRADY WALKINSHAW: I'm Brady Walkinshaw, and I'm the oldest of the group, and I'm a Democrat.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE BRANDON VICK: I'm Brandon Vick. I'm also 29 years old. And I'm a Republican.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE JOE FITZGIBBON: I'm Joe Fitzgibbon. I'm 27. I'm a Democrat. At the moment, I am the youngest member of the state legislature.
JENKINS: Think of these guys as the one percenters, that is the one percent of state lawmakers nationally who are under age 30. It's a one percent club these four millennials are proud to belong to.
ZEIGER: You know, I think being a citizen legislature in my twenties is the very best thing that I could be doing with my life.
WALKINSHAW: It's all about, for me, how we can create inclusive economic development that really brings everyone up with it.
VICK: I come from small business. One of my goals here is really to get into a situation where folks are excited about being entrepreneurs again.
FITZGIBBON: Olympia's a great place to be if you want to move into a position where you can actually make a difference.
KEI KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: I really love hearing these stories about policy makers who are young and doing things completely differently from the tradition. So they're not waiting for their turn to be leaders.
JENKINS: That's Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg. She studies millennials at Tufts University. She says the fact these young officeholders aren't waiting to become leaders bodes well for the political system.
KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: You know, and especially at the state level where things are just relatively more likely to move, I think that's where we're going to start to see a lot of innovations.
JENKINS: In many respects, these millennial lawmakers display the traits of their generation. But in other ways, they are outliers. The Pew Research Center reports that half of millennials concern themselves to be political independents with no party preference or loyalty. When they do vote, millennials are much more likely to vote democratic. They're also more liberal on social issues like same sex marriage and marijuana legalization. Republican State Representative Hans Zeiger feels that generational shift.
ZEIGER: I think there really is a sense of moving on from some of these hot button issues that have been very divisive in previous generations.
JENKINS: A bit later in our conversation, that theory was actually put to the test. I asked Democrat Brady Walkinshaw about being an openly gay lawmaker.
WALKINSHAW: Had I thought about running for office 20 years ago, this would have been something that even in my own party would have been something that would have been a much larger issue.
JENKINS: As Walkinshaw was speaking, I noticed Republican Brandon Vick was sitting next to him looking kind of stunned. He had no idea Walkinshaw is gay.
VICK: I'm kind of set aback here, because honestly, I would have had no idea that that was the case. I mean, this is the first time I've heard that. And I think that's a positive part of the story.
JENKINS: Vick then reached over and put his hand on Walkinshaw's shoulder.
VICK: And by no means am I going to talk to him any less, of course, now. But that's just very interesting. And within our party, I think, we are having some trends in that direction.
JENKINS: Not surprisingly, all four of these young millennial politicians are interested in how to get younger people more engaged in electoral politics. Republican Vick tells the story of trying to recruit fellow millennials to help on his first campaign.
VICK: I have friends that when I got involved five years ago and tried to get people to go doorbell with me didn't care.
JENKINS: At a recent symposium in Olympia focused on the topic of disengaged youth, one of the panelist was a millennial named Toby Crittenden. He runs a voter registration campaign called the Washington Bus. And he offered this blunt assessment.
TOBY CRITTENDEN: And I would go out on the record and say this, politics is not cool. Politics will never be cool. I'm so sorry.
JENKINS: Crittenden says the trick with millennials is to take the campaign to them, where they hang out, and also get them in the habit of participating.
CRITTENDEN: Voting is absolutely a learned behavior. It's something that you start doing. You get in the habit of doing. And you get really good at doing. It's not something that, you know, you just aren't born with this skill.
JENKINS: One way millennial politicians try to engage young voters is through social media. But like their peers, sometimes they're not too smart about what they post. Consider the experience of Democrat Joe Fitzgibbon, one of the millennial law makers we heard from earlier. Last December, after the Seattle Seahawks lost to the Arizona Cardinals, Fitzgibbon sent a tweet calling Arizona a desert racist wasteland. I asked Fitzgibbon about this.
JENKINS: That seemed like a very millennial faux pas perhaps.
FITZGIBBON: It was a good reminder of the internet and how, you know, poorly chosen words can go far and wide.
JENKINS: Fitzgibbon says he learned a valuable lesson.
FITZGIBBON: When you're an elected official, you have to choose your words a little bit more carefully than maybe others in my age group do.
JENKINS: Clearly, Fitzgibbon hopes to be remembered for more than his tweet gait. And therein lies an interesting dichotomy about these millennial lawmakers. They are the first generation to grow up in the world of instant social media, but the issues they care about are anything but instant, global climate change and what a 21st century state government should look like. These millennial lawmakers may tweet in real time, but they're thinking generationally.
For HERE AND NOW, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Washington.
HOBSON: And as we talk about millennials, send us your comments at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW.
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