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Millennial politicians find a path to power in Minnesota

CALEDONIA - Joshua Gran's classes are done for the day, but studying will have to wait. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student has a city to run.

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Mayor Josh Gran, left, talked with Councilor Robert Burns before the start of a Caledonia City Council meeting on Monday, March 9, 2015. Gran is the newly-elected mayor of Caledonia, Minn., and is the youngest in the city's history. The 21-year-old is also a student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and has to balance his political life with his student life. Burns is the former mayor of Caledonia, and now serves on the council. Alex Kolyer for MPR News

CALEDONIA – Joshua Gran's classes are done for the day, but studying will have to wait. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student has a city to run.

By 6 p.m., the 21-year-old economics major is sitting in the mayor's chair in Caledonia in far southeastern Minnesota, calling the town council to order and leading the Pledge of Allegiance. There's new business to be heard along with a staff briefing on a proposed new town pool.

Gran is flanked on both sides by council members and city staffers old enough to be his parents. Elected last fall, he knows there are skeptics in town who think he’s too young to be mayor or help manage the town's $2 million budget.

"But I think they understand that it's something I'm passionate about," says Gran, who grew up in Caledonia. "I want to do a good job. It's the city that I love. In a small town there's a lot of loyalty and trust and I think people are giving me the benefit of the doubt."

Millennials tend to be labeled a generation that doesn’t want to be bothered. Some, though, are redefining the role of young people, especially in local politics. From Caledonia to Grand Marais, Minnesota towns are proving to be fertile ground for a rising political class of politicians in their 20s and 30s.

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In 2010, St. Cloud State University student and baseball player Kent Koch won the mayor’s job in his hometown of Loretto, Minn. Last year, Andrew Johnson at age 29 became the first millennial on the Minneapolis City Council. In Fargo, 24-year-old Mara Brust is currently running for city commission.

In Grand Marais, the city council has seen a big influx recently of young politicians, including the mayor and two city council members all under 35. That’s helped shift attention to the needs of residents who worry more than retirees about things like the cost of housing, says Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux, the city's 32-year-old mayor.

"We're the ones that are struggling with finding houses, and we're the ones that are struggling with finding jobs," he said. "Having people that understand that in the local government has been giving a lot of people a lot of hope."

Like many young residents in Grand Marais, Arrowsmith DeCoux wears a lot of hats. He runs a bed and breakfast with his wife, he's a wilderness guide, he teaches classes at the local North House Folk School and he serves as the food safety instructor in town.

"We're putting time into housing studies and trying to figure out what exactly we need for housing," he said. "How do we attract younger families up here, and how do we give them work that's meaningful and can support their lifestyle, because it is expensive to live up here."

Arrowsmith DeCoux says there's a learning curve at City Hall. But he says there's an advantage to being a novice in a smaller community.

"Perhaps it's a little bit more forgiving on young people because everyone looks at them and says, 'Oh, geez. Well, they're young and they're learning their way.'"

Numbers are hard to come by, but in an audit last year, the national nonpartisan Young Elected Officials Network, a group that supports elected officials age 35 and younger, found that 61 percent of its 600 active members serve in towns with populations of 100,000 or smaller.

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Small town politics can also help launch bigger careers.

Ten years ago, Richard Carlbom was elected mayor of St. Joseph, Minn., right after graduating from St. John's University. Carlbom went on to work for the mayor of St. Paul and run Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz's re-election campaign. Then, Carlbom successfully led the effort to defeat a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and the passage of the same-sex marriage bill.

"Having that opportunity in St. Joe to understand how to identify the assets in the community and enable those assets to come to fruition and accomplish big things is something I think I've done in each step of the way since leaving St. Joe," said Carlbrom, now 33.

In Caledonia, population nearly 3,000, Gran says he was motivated to run for office after learning more about state and national politics in high school. He tried to run when he was 18 but state law requires candidates be at least 21, so he waited.

He describes himself as conservative, saying he supports small government and is a critic of the federal budget deficit. "That was just kind of the way I was raised, very traditional, Christian, follow the Bible type family, and I'm proud of that, though," Gran said. "I think that's a real benefit and things that we need in this country is a balance. I think it's good to have people that have strong beliefs and strong foundations and principles."

As he prepares to graduate from college in May, he's considering a couple job offers as a financial analyst.

But nothing’s yet set in stone. After he graduates, the mayor of Caledonia will be "moving back in with mom and dad for a while here, (and) see where it goes from here."

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Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Brainerd at 88.3 FM or at MPRnews.org.

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