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Young lawmakers make inroads in politics

Eric Gregory is used to the question: "Are you old enough to run for office?" He gets it a lot when he knocks on doors to give his campaign spiel in the state legislature district that includes his Michigan hometown.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Eric Gregory is used to the question: "Are you old enough to run for office?" He gets it a lot when he knocks on doors to give his campaign spiel in the state legislature district that includes his Michigan hometown.

The answer to the question is yes - just barely. The Michigan State University senior is on the November ballot as a Democratic candidate, running against an incumbent in a traditionally Republican stronghold. He'll turn 21 in January, just in time to meet the minimum age requirement.

"Originally, there was the impression that I was going to be the sacrificial lamb candidate," says Gregory, a political theory major from Troy, Mich. "Now it seems people are saying, 'Maybe we should take this guy a little more seriously.'"

These days, a surprising number of young people are stepping forward to run for office - and sometimes winning.

Growing future leaders
The mayor of Torrington, Conn., is 23. Residents in small towns in Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania have elected teenagers as their mayors. And in some states, the ranks of 20-something lawmakers have grown to the point that they're having to compare birth dates to see who's the youngest. In the Maryland House of Delegates, for instance, the youngest member just turned 24, claiming the title by only a few months.

People interested in growing a corps of future leaders just wish there were more of them. They point to barriers that continue to impede young candidates - from a lack of money required to mount a campaign to having few mentors willing to show them how the process works.

Jim Hunt, president of the National League of Cities, has seen the effect of such barriers frequently, most recently at a gathering of local government officials in Illinois.

"I looked over the crowd and saw a plethora of gray hair," says Hunt, who's also a longtime city council member in Clarksburg, W.Va. "If we're going to continue on and have a vibrant country, you've got to look at that audience and see some young eyes looking back at you."

He estimates that about 5 percent of elected officials at the local level fall into the 18- to 35-year-old range. And those percentages drop steadily at state and federal levels. Though members of the U.S. House of Representatives can be as young as 25, the youngest is Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican who'll soon turn 31.

There's also a lack of diversity. A survey done at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in 2002 found that the large majority of the more than 800 young elected officials in federal, state and bigger local governments then were white males.

It can make politics feel isolating, as Alisha Thomas Morgan - a 28-year-old black woman who's the youngest member of the Georgia General Assembly - has found.

"I hear things like 'Oh, here comes the troublemaker' or 'I've got a child that's older than you,'" says Morgan, a Democrat and former organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Since she ran for office at age 23, she's also helped organize the Young Elected Officials Network, an alliance of more than 200 young politicians nationwide who consider themselves "progressive."

"The support system is critical," Morgan says.

Besides overcoming stereotypes about their age, some young politicians also find the time commitment challenging.

"It's limited my ability to do anything other than work, to be honest," Luke Ravenstahl, the 26-year-old mayor of Pittsburgh, says of the office he took over last month after his predecessor died.

But he says he's also found the position more rewarding than his previous job as a city council member. "As the mayor, you can see progress made, and you can allocate the resources to make happen what you want to see happen," he says.

Among other things, he's working on adding wireless Internet access and new residential projects to draw young professionals to Pittsburgh's downtown. He also hopes to use his youthfulness to help change the city's image as a downtrodden steel mill town.

Others are finding their own ways to use their age as an advantage.

"I have the energy to outwork everyone around me," says Malik Evans, the 26-year-old school board vice president in Rochester, N.Y., who also works full time as a bank manager.

Meanwhile, in Athens, Ohio, 20-year-old city council member Amy Flowers has been able to recruit fellow students at Ohio University to volunteer for the safety team for an annual Halloween block party and other projects.

It's a positive side of politics that can get lost in mudslinging campaigns and political scandal, says Ruth Mandel, a politics professor who led the Rutgers study. But she still encourages her sometimes disillusioned students to consider political office.

"If you don't go for it," she tells them. "Someone else will."

Back in Michigan, Gregory is taking that attitude to heart, even if his age startles some voters.

"I thought he was selling candy bars for the high school," Nancy Baker, a real estate agent in Clawson, Mich., says, laughing.

But her chat with him has her reconsidering him as a candidate.

"A lot of times if you get some fresh blood," she says, "it can be a good thing."