Are younger people more reluctant to pursue public office?
Young folks have always been reluctant to run for public office, but the younger generations of today may be particularly turned off to the idea, despite being very active as volunteers and public advocates. One reason? The toxicity and dysfunction of the modern political world.
Politics is not a young person’s game.
That’s not a radical statement in the least. Take a look at any given governing body — whether it’s township boards, the Minnesota Legislature, or executive positions across the country — and one’s likely to see heads white with seniority and faces creased with experience, populated by people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. The federal government takes this to new levels. President Donald Trump is 74 and Democratic nominee Joe Biden is 77. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 76. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 80. And the latter two lead a branch with 435 members who average 57.8 and 61.8 years old in the House and Senate, respectively.
Thus, it can be a little unusual when anyone younger than 30 throws their hat in the ring — no matter which level or branch of government is on the docket. In the Brainerd Dispatch coverage area, which incorporates Crow Wing, Cass, Todd, Wadena, Morrison, Mille Lacs and Aitkin counties, only three candidates running for local government offices listed in the recent Dispatch voter’s guide of contested races are younger than 30 years old.
These are Mariah Hines, 27, a candidate for the Pequot Lakes School Board; Kurtis Moody, 27, a candidate for Loon Lake Township supervisor; and Adam Sparrow, 29, a candidate for the Pillager City Council.
If you ask Professor Larry Jacobs, an expert of politics and voting behavior at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, he’d say politics has skewed toward older demographics since the first vote was ever cast, but millennials and Gen Zers are particularly averse to dipping their toes in the political sphere. According to Pew Research, millennials are typically defined as those born between 1980 and 1996, while Gen Zers are those born after 1996.
This has nothing to do with selfishness, Jacobs said, as young people statistically turn out in droves to volunteer and serve their communities, or sacrifice their time as activists and advocates. Sure, Jacobs said, older folks have more personal history invested in their communities; as retirees they may have more free time; and at this stage in life they may be more financially tied into the local ecosystem, but the primary issue for these youngsters is that politics itself has become such a toxic, degraded aspect of American culture.
“There's a lot of polling data showing that younger people — meaning 30 and under — are concerned about their communities, but disinterested in elected politics,” Jacobs said. “They have concluded … there's not much good that can come from it. Younger people are less interested in elected office, but more interested in volunteering in their community and outside of politics. … There’s just such a negative connotation with that.”
“It’s pretty nasty. Here the country is in dire straits and Congress can’t even agree on passing a modest bill to help people facing homelessness,” Jacobs later added. “That’s what it looks like. For a lot of people, that’s what’s wrong with the world.”
Based on personal experience as an activist and executive director of Brainerd Lakes Pride, Sparrow agreed with this assessment.
“I've talked to a lot of people that are in our age group. They want to get involved in something, they want to make a change and make a difference, but they don't necessarily see politics as a way to do that,” Sparrow said. “When you volunteer, you don't usually have drama. There’s more spite to politics than there is in volunteering.”
In the case of Hines, Sparrow, and Moody, all three younger candidates acknowledged experience is a huge factor — in terms of why people choose candidates over others in local government, or why young people feel politics isn’t for them. Voters gravitate toward those who have seen a thing or two, they said, and there’s sound logic in that, but government needs decision-makers whose perspectives reflect all demographics and walks of life — not exclusively the older generations.
For Hines, the fact that school boards often feature members who have no children enrolled in their local school district has always seemed an odd, if not flawed aspect of the norm.
“My two children are actually just entering the school system right now and I just don't want to be sitting on the sidelines,” Hines said. “It's great that people want to be involved, but I never understood why you want to be on the school board if you don't have children (in the district) because the decisions that you make on a school board wouldn’t be impacting your family. If the decisions that you make on the school board impact you and your family, then I think that's more important to you.”
Sparrow said that his relative lack of experience was the single greatest hurdle to taking a leap into public life. It wasn’t until an older, more experienced lawmaker in Pillager Mayor Bret Mattheisen encouraged him to run that Sparrow felt he was in the right place in life and had the right personal qualities to be an elected official. Still, he said, that doesn’t soften expectations he’ll face some flack for his age, or backlash from community members on account of his sexual orientation.
“I expect some resistance probably just because of my age,” Sparrow said. “Pillager is a very small town. And with my sexual orientation, I’m gay, I see some resistance coming from that, too. I've been talking to a lot of people. It could open people's eyes a little bit … to show people that, you know, LGBT people aren't the stereotype. They aren't dangerous. They're not scary people. We're normal people. We're your cashiers. Your mechanics. Your doctors. We're the same thing that you are.”
Moody also agreed it’s natural for people to gravitate toward experience, but said — largely from his personal candidacy — that it’s the type of experience and credentials that sets some people apart to be public servants. Sometimes, the right kind of experience doesn’t come in the form of wizened sages, but younger people who have prepared themselves for the role.
“Being younger, you know, I don't look at it as a negative,” said Moody, who pointed to his master’s degree in education in finance and business management as well membership in the Pequot Lakes Chamber of Commerce. “I may be younger, but I've got a lot of education and a lot of experience toward different roles as someone that used to be involved, who wants to be involved and has the energy.”
Moody said the government — whether local, state, or federal — rarely benefits from having the same people making decisions for decades at time in a fast-moving and changing world. More young people have to become involved in politics, he said, in order for them to take stewardship of a world that will belong to them and their children.
“Maybe I have new youthful perspectives that we need to make a difference in a leadership position,” Moody added. “You do have a different viewpoint than older generations and maybe have a different understanding of how things are moving and how to change it.”
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .