POSTED ON JULY 4, 2012:
Young politicians not waiting to make their mark
As he campaigned this spring for a seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Justin Freeland Wood's hand shaking and kibitzing didn't always go as expected.
More than once, a senior citizen whose vote Wood was courting would reach up and gently slide his fingers behind the candidate's ear.
"You're wet behind the ears," the man would say.
When you're 22, still in college and audacious enough to believe you should be the one to succeed the House's most powerful member -- Speaker Kris Steele -- those sorts of things just happen.
"Most of the time," Wood quickly added, "people are excited to see me -- at the door or at a restaurant or at dinner -- because they know my family."
Wood's bid to become an elected state official at an age when many of his contemporaries are scrambling to even settle on a field of collegiate study would seem to make him rarity: A 20-something already tuned into politics and turned on by public service.
Actually, Wood has company -- lots of it. Three current state representatives are 25 or younger. And this year, 20 candidates 30 or younger sought seats in the Oklahoma Legislature.
After last week's primary, nine of the young-gun candidacies remain alive, including Wood who won the GOP nomination in House District 26. They either face a runoff for their party's nomination or a general election opponent in November.
Four more 20-somethings have now won elections outright to serve in the 101-member House when it reconvenes early next year.
Overall, 11 members of the current state Legislature -- 10 House and one Senate -- are 34 or younger, or 7.4 percent of the 101 state representatives and 48 senators.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, that is almost double the national average -- 3.8 percent of state lawmakers nationally are 34 or younger.
"For so long young people have been told that they have to take a back seat to lot of things, especially on the political scene," notes 23-year-old state Rep. Josh Cockroft, R-Tecumseh, now seeking his second legislative term. "People are beginning to realize you don't have to be a certain age or have certain experience to make a positive difference for our state."
What is driving so many young people into a political process they so often shunned in the past?
For years after the street-marching, anti-war 1960s, younger Americans tuned out politics, voting in such low numbers that political leaders frequently scrambled for ways publicly to engage them in the electoral and governing processes.
In the last two election cycles, at least in Oklahoma, the number of 35-and-under candidates filing for legislative offices suggests an era in which younger voices return to the political decision-making table in America.
According to Rose State College political science professor Dr. John Wood (no relation to candidate Wood), 18 candidates from the 30-under set filed for legislative offices in 2010, and 41 were age 35 or younger.
This year, 49 of the candidates were 35 or younger.
There is no single explanation for the mini-boom, political experts say, though there are several obvious possibilities:
First, younger Oklahomans are wrapping up their collegiate careers loaded with student loan debt and facing murky career prospects -- even though the state's economy is stronger than most, thanks to the energy sector.
As a result, some could be motivated to seek public office by a desire to help shape public policy that could help improve Oklahoma's long-term economic prospects -- for example, broadening an economic base still too dependent on oil, gas and agriculture.
Second, a significant percentage -- it's difficult to be precise -- of younger candidates was either homeschooled or privately educated, is devoutly religious and sees public service as a "calling," much as those who enter full-time ministry or mission work.
Third, term limits create a steady stream of opportunities -- open seats that are much easier to win than knocking out an entrenched incumbent who, short of scandal, has all the advantages, including special interest money and inside-the-Capitol connections.
You need look no further than the Legislature's three youngest members: state Reps. Elise Hall, 23, R-Oklahoma City; Emily Virgin, 25, D-Norman' and Tecumseh's Cockroft, all won election in 2010 to open seats -- two created by term limits.
"Term limits definitely do have an effect," says Cockroft, who captured a vacant seat created when former state Rep. Shane Jett decided two years ago to run for the state's 5th Congressional District seat instead.
While it's true that it's easier for a political neophyte to win an open seat, he says, it's also true -- and perhaps even more important -- that term limits create a sense of urgency among the elected class to get things done, because time (12-year maximum by law) is short.
"Used to, you were in 25 or 30 years so you have a little bit of a grace period, if you will, when you start out," explains Cockroft, who previously worked on Jett's campaigns. "People didn't expect you to step up and do so much right away.
"But now you have 12 years and you're done. So ... when those seats do come open, the people who file for them are more apt to be enthusiastic and more apt to get something done as opposed to seeing at as 'I've got 20 years ahead of me' ... or I can kind of ease into it.'"
Not surprisingly, not all the 34-and-under crowd were successful on primary night.
For example, Jason Carini, 28, lost his bid for the GOP nomination to replace the late state Rep. Sue Tibbs in Tulsa's House District 23. In the Ada area's House District 25, Donald Cole Gallup, 29, lost his Republican primary bid to unseat incumbent state Rep. Todd Thomsen. And in the race for Oklahoma City's open House District 88 seat, Democrat Matt Harney, 30, failed to make the August runoff -- which will feature 53-year-old Kay Floyd and 63-year-old Mike Dover.
Another 34-and-under candidate in the Tulsa area that is still competing for a state Senate seat is 29-year-old Broken Arrow Republican Nathan Dahm, who earned a spot in the District 33 runoff against 61-year-old Tim Wright, also of Broken Arrow.
Both Cockroft, one of the Legislature's youngest members, and state Rep. David Dank, at 73, one of the Legislature's oldest, say they believe there is a cyclical nature to politics in which currently, at least, more young candidates are emerging.
"If there's a dozen young people, that means there's lot of people over 35," says Dank. "And most of them under 35 they're trainable. They haven't had quite the life experiences of some of the older members like myself have had.
"I don't mean it to sound sanctimonious. I don't have any trouble visiting and communicating with younger people. I don't think age matters as much as people having a desire to do the people's work."
That is what motivated both Rep. Virgin, who was automatically re-elected when no one filed against her, and Rep. Hall, who won re-election in last week's primary.
"I could have waited until I was older and married and had a family and a career," she said. "One of the reasons I decided to run now was I wanted to be able to make a difference for my generation.
"When I look back at life at 60, I want to be able to look back and say I didn't waste any part of my life. I was always in a position to make a difference."
For Virgin, it was perfect timing. She was "energized seeing the affects of state government budget cuts" on public schools (larger class sizes) and higher education (tuition hikes) and on organizations such as the Women's Resource Center in Norman where she volunteered.
Moreover, it was an open House seat -- veteran incumbent Bill Nations was term-limited -- and her personal life was less complicated than some her age: "I'm not married, I don't have children, I don't have a lot of responsibilities outside of law school (she is two semesters from finishing at the University of Oklahoma)."
Even though they are aligned with different parties and disagree on key public policy, Virgin, Hall and Cockroft enjoy camaraderie as members of what's known unofficially as the Kiddie Caucus.
"If one of us gets a bill passed or we do something good, we always say 'congrats. ... The young caucus is getting things done!'" says Virgin.
Still, given the polarized nature of American politics, it's not easy to forge friendships across the party divide, even when you're of the same generation and enjoy many of the same sorts of things.
"It's too bad things are so bitterly divided," Virgin says. "I hate it. Maybe we ought to start (an official) young people's caucus."
There was a time, not so long ago, that the notion of a 21-year-old winning a seat in the Legislature was akin to lightning striking the same place twice.
Kenneth Corn was a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma in 1998 when he was first elected to the state House, representing his hometown district that included Poteau, near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border.
At the time he was sworn-in at age 22, he was the second youngest House member in state history -- longtime state lawmaker Gene Stipe bested him by "three or four months." He later was elected to the state Senate and -- after 12 years -- was forced from office in 2010 because of term limits.
He was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2010, but Republicans swept all the statewide offices. He now is retired from politics ... at age 35.
"I wouldn't trade my experiences in the Legislature for anything," says Corn, who now helps manage a trucking company.
"I gave up the early part of my life to do public service whereas a lot of people my age were making money and starting families. I came out more in debt than when I went in."
Like many of the younger candidates seeking office today, Corn didn't grow up dreaming of becoming an elected official. In fact, he figured he would become a minister.
What put politics on his radar was a chance meeting with a state Senate candidate in 1986, not long after the Corn family had moved to Poteau.
"Larry Dickerson was running for the state Senate, and he was only 30," Corn recalls. "I was outside playing. I heard him talking to my Mom and Dad. It piqued my interest. So I started helping Larry in his campaign."
He also began attending Democratic Party events, and by the time he entered high school he knew public service was in his future.
The opportunity came when longtime state Rep. Jim Hamilton, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, suddenly announced he was retiring. Corn was in China on a summer-study program when he received the news. He called back to the states, organizing family and friends to get his campaign up and running.
Corn is one who believes that public service is a calling and those who engage in it must have what he described as "a servant's heart" -- a willingness and ability to set aside personal gain for the greater good.
But he also expresses concern that some among this new crop of young candidates are too focused on the "philosophical implications of becoming a lawmaker, as opposed to what is practical. ... [T]hey're more philosophically inclined and less willing to compromise."
For example, he says, some of the more ideological candidates will emphasize one religious conviction -- say abortion or gay rights -- but "forget about the other teachers in the New Testament."
"Jesus looked after the least among us," he says. "As a lawmaker, you have to be an advocate for the people you serve. I think we're starting to miss that with the newer lawmakers."
Dank, the third oldest legislator (after 75-year-old incumbent Oklahoma City Rep. Guy Liebmann was knocked out in the GOP primary), says he sees the younger candidates' backgrounds -- often devoted to their religious faith, often homeschooled or private school educated -- at the forefront of their approach to social issues which "I don't think is a bad thing."
"The young people I've worked with, both Democrat and Republican, seem to have a mission," Dank says. "They're not out there just for the job or for what it pays, but more for [the notion] they have some kind of calling, one way or the other."
Cockroft, who described himself as a "devout Christian," calls it a "belief in wanting to make our world better, making it a more positive place to live.
"I think people have become so fed up with hypocrisy in elected office that they are drawn to a person who has a strong moral conviction, a strong backbone and a foundation that when you look at that person that you know you can trust them. That feeling hasn't been there before. It's been a good old boy system."
Some Capitol insiders suggest there may be another practical reason for the higher number of under 35 candidates: The grueling reality of modern political campaigning -- door-to-door canvassing, especially in triple-digit summer heat, almost ensures it's a younger person's game.
"It's almost necessary to go door to door, at least at the outset, and younger people are more able to do that," says Dank, a former lobbyist who was automatically elected this year to a fourth term because he didn't draw an opponent.
"It's tough right now. You take some of the candidates who have been around for a while like myself. If I had to go door-to-door last summer or this with 100-plus temperature, that's really tough on you."
Dank also pointed out what he perceives to be another factor: a proliferation of professional political consultants who build their businesses by recruiting "younger people who they know can go door-to-door and have at least the ability to raise part of the funds necessary to run."
Like House candidate Justin Wood, Cockroft says it was jarring for some potential voters to open their front doors to a 21-year-old seeking a seat in the Oklahoma Legislature.
"People haven't expected to see someone like that show up on their doorstep," he says. "There's that initial attitude of them not taking you seriously, possibly.
"But what I always told the voters is, age is just a number. What counts is if you're willing and able to serve. Once you get past the shock effect of the fact you're a 20-something running for office, there's a respect because you're willing to lead.
"I can only speak from personal experience, but I grew up in a home where I was taught if you are willing and if you are able to make difference -- wherever that was -- that was where I was supposed to be."
When she first ran two years ago, Virgin says she was asked repeatedly about her age -- "it was the No. 1 question I'd get when knocking doors" -- even though her district has a history of electing younger women (former state Rep. Cleta Deatherage was only 26 when she won the seat 1976).
"I think it (her youth) ended up being a good thing," she said. "They want to hear more about you ... why you'd get involved at that age."
Ultimately, she says, many voters are so disillusioned with politics today that they are open to candidates who don't fit the traditional mold (i.e. middle-aged and older, white males) -- "someone," as she put it, "drastically different than someone in there right now."
At 22, Wood believes the Oklahoma House of Representatives is where he's supposed to be. And the odds would appear to favor him getting there.
Just days before the June 26 Republican primary, Wood received a coveted endorsement from the man who currently holds the seat he hopes to occupy, the term-limited House Speaker, Kris Steele.
Wood went on to win the GOP nomination with nearly 57 percent of the vote against a 34-year-old opponent. Next up: a general election showdown against a 52-year-old Democrat, Patty Sue Wagstaff.
Wood, the son of a Shawnee police officer and an elementary school teacher, says he believes his age and relative inexperience actually are advantages, arguing voters are so dismayed by modern politics that they're more willing to consider candidates that don't necessarily fit the traditional profile.
"It's a new fad almost among people in our age group, trying to break the mold of the same person every year," says Wood, who is nine hours short of completing his English degree at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. "There are so many problems with our government and the status quo just isn't taking care of it."
There's another advantage to his age, he adds: "We (younger candidates) bring a set of values that are not corrupted yet. You can dig through my closet. I don't have anything to hide."
Cockroft, meanwhile, notes that just because there seems to be an increasing number of younger candidates doesn't mean the younger people generally are more engaged in politics.
"My generation is full of apathy and full of young people who don't understand or haven't been taught how to lead," he says. "When someone [my age] steps up and says they want to lead, there may be an initial shock, but then it becomes a respect that this younger person wants to make a difference."
And that may be the common thread, whether Republican or Democrat, that binds the 20-somethings seeking public office in Oklahoma.
"It's a desire, an enthusiasm to serve," Cockroft says. "That's shared by all of us. That's what propels us."
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