Politics & Issues
10:20 pm
Sun January 19, 2014

New Generation Of Young Political Leaders Is Emerging

There's a saying that a life well lived can be split into thirds. The first third is spent learning, the second third earning, and the third returning, or giving back. So a 25-year-old leaving his career to become a public servant must have skipped a step, right?

Young political leaders, from top left: Patrick Brown, Michael Butler, Shane Cohn, Robert Cornejo, Maggie Crane, Courtney Curtis, Paul Curtman, Charles Hinderliter, Christine Ingrassia, Tishaura Jones, Andrew Koenig, Molly McCann, Scott Ogilvie, Joshua Peters, Mary Ellen Ponder, Michael Powers and Michelle Witthaus.
Credit Provided photos

  "I say no," said Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, who was 25 when he was elected to represent Missouri's 76th House district in a special election last April.

"So many people helped me get to the point of graduating from high school, graduating college. Even at the Hope House when we (Peters, his mother and five siblings) were homeless," Peters said. "That was an investment that people were making in me."

Now, he said, "You have to go back and give back."

Throughout the region, young people are finding opportunities for public service in politics. Voters have elected candidates in their 20s and 30s to represent them in state and city offices. Older elected officials have filled staff vacancies with — and even created new positions specifically for — a younger crop of leaders.

“There is a lot of potential for young people who work very hard,” said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “A relatively small coalition can pay off in a big way.”

“Both parties have different bench strengths in different areas,” Robertson added, speaking geographically. That means that St. Louis, parts of St. Louis County and Jefferson County favor opportunities for young Democrats while most opportunities for young Republicans are farther out in western St. Louis County, Franklin and St. Charles counties or even in the state capital.

St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon sat down with 17 young leaders in regional politics — elected officials, staffers and community organizers, Democrats, Republicans and an independent — to ask how their age affects their work. Do they think that they have something to prove? Do they bring a different expectation of engagement and community involvement to elected office? Are they eager to buck the system -- or fit in?

Perhaps not surprisingly,  their perspectives vary on nearly every aspect of the experience.

You can view a video interview with each of the political leaders we talked to here.

"If I walk into a room of people who have been working in the field for 20 years, I try to make sure that I am as educated on the topic that we are talking about" as they are. — Mary Ellen Ponder

Something to prove

Mary Ellen Ponder, 33, was appointed deputy chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay after running his 2013 re-election campaign; she had served in his office before that. She described feeling the need to "make up for" or compensate for the knowledge or wisdom that comes with years of experience. 

"I make sure that I am over-prepared for any meeting or encounter that I have," Ponder said. "If I walk into a room of people who have been working in the field for 20 years, I try to make sure that I am as educated on the topic that we are talking about" as they are. 

Michael Powers, 29, agrees. He was appointed legislative director to the president of the Board of Aldermen in May after serving as neighborhood improvement specialist in the 21st Ward since 2010.

"You have a lot to prove when you are stepping into a political process your colleagues have been working in for 20 to 30 years," Powers said. "You have to prove that you understand [the process], that you know the ins and outs, and that you have value in it."

But, he said, "once you've done that, [board members] will come to you, trust in your ability, and respect you as a professional."

Powers sees a big difference between how elected officials and staffers are viewed. Because winning an elected office brings with it an innate legitimacy, "young elected officials are seen in a whole different light," he said.

That might explain why St. Louis Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, countered the view that being young is a characteristic that must be "made up for."

"You can't separate your identity from who you are," said Cohn, 33, who was elected alderman in 2009. Youth can be an advantage simply because of the differences in perspective.

"My life experiences are going to be very much different from someone who is 60 years old. I didn't live through the Vietnam War, I wasn't around for the Jefferson Bank protests.

"Likewise," Cohn added, "I am a lot closer to someone in high school in terms of my age, and at least a little bit closer in terms of my identity."

City Hall is distinct from the state capitol in Jefferson City. There, term limits regularly usher in waves of new faces -- of various ages.

“I’m 34 and I’m one of the older ones,” said Charles Hinderliter, political director of Friends of Diehl. Hinderliter ran the reelection campaign as well as the races for floor majority leader and House speaker for state Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country.

“We have a wide range of ages represented in the legislature, and honestly I think that’s a good thing,” Hinderliter said. “We’ve got 163 members in the State House and they come from all walks of life.... And that’s a lot of fun,” he added.

"You have to prove that you understand [the process], that you know the ins and outs, and that you have value in it. . .once you've done that, [board members] will come to you, trust in your ability, and respect you as a professional." — Michael Powers

Community engagement

All the young leaders did agree about the influence that their age plays on the physical and philosophical efforts of their work, particularly in engaging the communities they serve.

During his successful bid for the House seat for Missouri's 64th District in 2012, Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, attempted to knock on every door in the district, including the rural ones.

"There were literally dozens of times that someone would say, 'you're the first person that's ever knocked my door,'" Cornejo, 30, recalled. "One person that I distinctly remember told me, 'I've lived here for 40 years and no one has ever come to my door.'"

Cornejo's physical ability to knock on as many doors as he did, he said, "was one advantage that I had and I used it to its full potential. I got out there and was knocking every day but Sunday."

Knocking on doors is by no means a new concept. It can be, however, an equalizer for the young candidate who may lack the resources and recognition of an endorsed and established opponent.

At least that was what state Rep. Courtney Curtis, D-Berkeley, thought about his 2012 campaign. He was elected to represent Missouri's 73rd district.

"Coming in at a grassroots level or running a straight grassroots campaign is the only way you can get in if you're not connected," Curtis, 32, said. "Otherwise you'd be waiting in line or waiting for one to two other candidates to term out or maybe for a special election to come up to get in."

Using each summer day's heat index — plus 15 — as his target number, Curtis knocked on doors every day of the campaign. "Except Sundays," he noted. "I didn't knock on Sundays; I have a problem with that."

At first glance, knocking on doors doesn’t seem to fit the image of young candidates incorporating the latest technologies of  community engagement at their disposal. But while knocking on doors is by no means new, it's being viewed in a new way.

“In our day and age, the mail we send, we hope that a voter looks at it between delivery and the trash can,” said Hinderliter, who is also a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of South Carolina-Columbia and an adjunct professor at Maryville University. With more people using cell phones, “it’s harder to reach people by phone. I don’t watch TV.... No ad is going to reach me. It’s harder and harder to reach people so it is at the point where we have to go old school.”

And while Hinderliter is a Republican, he observed that “the Obama campaign did a fantastic job of that in the 2012. I mean door knocking was one of their main tools and you just do not see that on a large scale like that. And I think we’re going to see more of that,” he added.

And young leaders are taking direct community engagement into new directions.

Michelle Witthaus, 36, finished third in the voting for 6th Ward alderman in March. She ran on a platform to introduce participatory budgeting; that would have allowed ward residents to vote on the appropriation of money from the ward budget. 

"We had built all this momentum around participatory budgeting," Witthaus said. She felt it would have been a shame to let that die. And it didn't.

Witthaus' opponent in the election, Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward, asked Witthaus to help with participatory budgeting in the ward, and Witthaus took her up the offer.

"Let's take this little bit of money and give people access to how that money is spent," Witthaus said.

Of course, there is community engagement through social media. And young politicos have spearheaded the use of Facebook and Twitter as a tool of both receiving and disseminating information, even for established politicians.

"There's so much we see on Twitter and Facebook now," said Maggie Crane, 31, who left her career in television reporting to become director of communications to Slay last January.

"The mayor has 23,000 followers [on Twitter], he has a blog," she said. "There's little excuse anymore to not at least make your voice heard."

"If you look at our current elected officials, they are getting older and sooner or later they are going to be replaced. We have to start training people now to think of careers in public service." — Tishaura Jones

Joining, not bucking, the system

Patrick Brown, 28, spends a lot of time thinking about the role that young people play in local politics. It's part of his job description. Brown joined Slay's staff in 2009 in part to bring a young person's voice to the administration. 

So does he see himself and as "bucking the system"? Not exactly.

"I don't think that we have a system that needs to be cast out and thrown away," he said. "You need people who understand the pitfalls [of a system] to help bring new ideas through."

That's the idea behind the Vanguard Cabinet that he heads -- to bring young people into the decision making process of St. Louis.

"It's helpful," Brown added, "if you have an administration like the mayor's that is willing to help [young people to] shepherd ideas through."

Indeed, Slay has made an effort to offer opportunities in his administration to young people. Three of the  people interviewed for this article — Brown, Ponder and Crane — work in his office. He's not the only one, however.

"I'm recruiting them myself," said St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, 41, about the growing number of young leaders in the region.

Jones herself fits the bill of a young leader. Owing to her comparative experience — Jones comes from a political family, was elected to the Missouri house in 2008, and served as the assistant minority leader in 2010 before becoming treasurer in 2012 — she has the added distinction of being a mentor to some in the current crop of young leaders.

"If you look at our current elected officials," Jones said, "they are getting older and sooner or later they are going to be replaced. We have to start training people now to think of careers in public service."

Jones has reached out to Ingrassia, nominating her to the Young Elected Officials network, a national nonpartisan organization that supports the development of elected officials in their 30s and younger.

"It's been really helpful," Ingrassia, 38, said, "to [discuss] some of the same issues that have come up for me" with other elected officials in the network.

"Really it's a great way to think about what other people are doing around the country that we might be able to do here."

"I can't tell you how many times people have told me, 'I'm ready for you guys to take over.' Ten years ago you would not have heard that. People were not ready to pass down their district, their responsibility. It's a great time for young people to get involved." — Michael Butler

Looking for mentors

Rather than bucking the system, several young leaders said they want to integrate themselves and their ideas into the system. The difference between bucking and integrating has much to do with the opportunities, and the mentors, that the system presents.

"There's a generational shift happening right now in St. Louis politics," said state Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, who was elected in 2012 to represent Missouri's 63rd District.

"I can't tell you how many times people have told me, 'I'm ready for you guys to take over,'" Butler, 27, said. "Ten years ago you would not have heard that. People were not ready to pass down their district, their responsibility. It's a great time for young people to get involved."

Those opportunities, and the mentorship that goes with it, may be born out of necessity.

“Because of term limits (elected officials) want to pass on that knowledge a lot quicker,” said state Rep. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester. Koenig, 31, has served since 2008 and chairs the Ways and Means Committee.

In 2010, the Republicans saw their majority in the Missouri House increase to 105 members from 88. That   meant that a large number of newly elected members had to be brought up to speed.

Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, was first elected as representative of the 109th district in the 2010 election and recalled how then Speaker of the House Steve Tilley mentored newcomers.

“What I really liked about the speaker’s office is they had a mentorship structure going,” Curtman, 32, recalled. “Especially in 2010 because we had so many brand new Republicans that got elected, they assigned a lot of the incoming representatives to somebody who had been there four to five years.

“It was very helpful,” Curtman added. “I think it helped facilitate a smooth transition into a new legislative session.”

"We're always building the city we want for 20 years from now. And so if we're building the city we want for 20 years from now, we've got to think about and listen to the people who will be living in that city 20 years from now." — Scott Ogilvie

Role of young leaders

So what is the role of young voices in regional politics? What, if anything, makes their presence notable, interesting, or even significant?

For Molly McCann, executive director of Missouri Roundtable for Life, service in politics is placed in context by the service of young people in the military.

“I think some people are called to serve in the military,” McCann, 25, said. “But it does no good if our soldiers are fighting overseas and people don’t care on the home front. I think that it’s a natural progression to see that others have sacrificed and some have died for this freedom. And understanding that it’s a responsibility for every generation to maintain it for the next.”

Accept what’s been given, improve it and pass it on. That’s the slow and deliberate process of government, and it is as true for the senior-most member of a legislative body as it is for the youngest. What separates the younger from the older, it seems, may simply be where they land on the timeline.

"At the end of the day," explained Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, who was elected in 2009 as the lone independent on the Board of Aldermen, "everything in local government takes time. We're always building the city we want for 20 years from now."

"And so if we're building the city we want for 20 years from now," Ogilvie, 33, continued, "we've got to think about and listen to the people who will be living in that city 20 years from now."

You can view a video interview with each of the political leaders we talked to here.