by Jon Kuhl
Who are these people and what drives them? That’s the question moderator John Celock posed while opening the panel discussion on young state legislators and legislative staffers. Celock, only 32 himself, is no stranger to this topic. He’s currently a state politics reporter for the Huffington Post, and author of “The Next Generation: Young Elected Officials and Their Impact on American Politics,” a book that profiles young people who have successfully run for political office.
While writing his book, Celock identified four starting points for young people’s careers in politics. The first is people who want to make politics their career. It’s a motivation with which one panelist, Representative John Burris of Arkansas, could identify. “If you want to be president by 40, you gotta start early.” The room laughed along with Burris, but he may not have been joking. Having been elected to his first term in the Arkansas House in 2008 at age 23, Burris already has served as minority leader.
Celock’s second starting point is young people who begin their careers as legislative staffers. The staffers on the panel didn’t express a desire to run for office, but if they did, they would join the ranks of many who have, including Hillary Clinton, who once worked on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary.
Having a parent for a politician is Celock’s third category. None of the panelists had parents in elected politics, but it isn’t hard to think of many who have. Alaska’s U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski is a prime example. Her father, Governor Frank Murkowski, appointed her to the Senate in 2002.
Celock’s final career starting point is people who are motivated by idealism. In explaining this category, Celock cited veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who choose to run for office. Panelist Representative Clem Smith of Missouri seemed to fall into this category, having decided to run for the Missouri House of Representatives after getting involved with the United Auto Workers union.
Like everyone on the panel, Representative Smith thinks his relatively young age is an asset. The phrase, “It’s always been done this way,” doesn’t mean anything to him. Other panelists agreed, saying they bring new perspectives that their older colleagues don’t necessarily have.
So why do young people want to get involved in politics? “It’s not the pay,” said Bryen Johnson who works for the Illinois Senate, inspiring knowing snickers throughout the room. “You’re having a lasting impact on policy that’s going to be on the books for years.”
In addition to the panelists mentioned, Tisha Gieser from the Alaska House of Representatives and Jennifer Esser from the Wisconsin House Majority Leader’s office were also on the panel.