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On the trail: As he enters Missouri House, Peters embraces 'urgency of now'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: State Rep. Joshua Peters could have waited his turn to run for elected office. But the 25-year-old instead decided to join a growing crop of young Missourians who felt the “fierce urgency of now.”

After a few years of toiling behind the scenes in Jefferson City and Washington, D.C., Peters won a special election earlier this month to represent the north St. Louis 76th District in the Missouri House. He was sworn into office Wednesday.

Since he graduated from Lincoln University, Peters spent time working for U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. Before working for Clay, Peters interned in the Missouri Capitol for lawmakers such as former state Rep. J.C. Kuessner, D-Eminence. 

By his own admission, Peters could have continued to build experience and expertise as a staffer. But it was that “fierce urgency of now” – a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that President Barack Obama used in his political campaigns – that spurred Peters to make the electoral leap.

“For people in my generation, it really resonated because up until that point, we really had nothing to stand for in a sense of getting involved,” Peters said in a telephone interview a day after being sworn into office. “So people in my age group saw the opportunity to say ‘hey, there are some things and some decisions that are being made now that are going to affect my life down the line.’

“It’s going to affect my children’s lives and my nieces' and nephews’ lives down the line,” he added. “So let them take charge of that now.”

Peters may be part of burgeoning trend. This past election cycle featured a number of 20-somethings being elected to the Missouri House, including Reps. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, (27), Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City, (26), T.J. McKenna, D-Jefferson County, (27) Joe Don McGaugh, R-Carrollton, (29), and Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, (26).

Notably, the person Peters replaced – St. Louis Alderman Chris Carter, D-27th Ward – was 27 when he was first elected to the Missouri House. Other lawmakers who’ve climbed to significant General Assembly leadership posts – such as House Speaker Pro Tem Jason Smith, R-Salem, and state Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City – entered the General Assembly while in their 20s.

(It's also worth noting that 31-year-old Secretary of State Jason Kander is the youngest statewide officer in the nation. And 39-year-old state Treasurer Clint Zweifel was the youngest person elected to his office in more than a century.)

For his part, Peters sees the youth infusion as a positive development.

“I’ve only been here for a day now,” Peter said. “But I do believe that there is a trend that is taking place across the region, which is very good. I know there might be some that are part of the old guard that may not see that. Or there may be some hesitation that our youth equals inexperience. That’s not necessarily the truth all the time. I plan definitely to work with individuals such as Mike Butler and Kim Gardner and Clem Smith and other individuals who are in that age group that you mentioned.

“There is a big push with people understanding that ‘hey, it may be time to pass things onto our younger group,’” he added. “Those who worked in the shadows are now coming to the forefront. It’s positive for our future. It’s very positive for our region.”

The youthful disposition of the legislature may be a result of term limits. How else can anyone explain how Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles, is the most senior member of the Missouri Senate at age 39?

But at least one legislative veteran notes that younger politicians have emerged – and thrived – in Missouri politics before term limits took hold.

Along with state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, Rep. Nate Walker is one of two current lawmakers who were in the Missouri General Assembly during the 1980s. The Kirksville Republican entered the Missouri House earlier this year as a born-again freshman, thanks to the fact that his prior service in the House didn’t count against term limits.

In an interview with the Beacon on his 61st birthday, Walker noted that he was 26 when he was first elected to the House in 1980. And despite being considerably more youthful than his legislative counterparts, he was able to capture a leadership position – House minority whip – within a single term. (He did note that “being minority whip is not a very big deal, because you can whip everybody into place and you’re still ... behind by 53 votes.”)

One axiom for young legislators, Walker said, is not to “come across being arrogant or knowing everything or knowing it all.”

“Even though we’re in term limits, I think people still kind of think that freshmen should probably sit and listen and observe and add most of their input in committee work rather than being up on the floor -- unless it’s a subject that they’re very well briefed in or knowledgeable about,” Walker said. “Just to get up to have dialouge back and forth, we have too much of that sometimes just for the sake of some of the people who want to hear each other jabber back and forth.”

Anybody who comes in when they’re 25 or 26, Walker said, can succeed and advance in the House “if they work hard and do their homework and get along with other people.”

“I think it’s great that there are young people in the legislature. They just have to be careful of how they’re perceived in their own party and in the opposing party,” Walker said. “Once you come in, you’ve already got to figure out where you want to be in eight years if you continue to stay in the House. You’ve got to be careful that you don’t step on people’s toes. But that’s not changed from the past.”

For his part, Peters – a Beaumont High School graduate – said that he wants to work long term to help bring the St. Louis Public School system back to full accreditation. In the short term, he said he will focus on providing constituent services to the residents of his district. 

“Being in the super minority here in Jefferson City, we are limited to what we can do on certain issues,” Peters said. “However, I definitely plan to work with my caucus and work when appropriate across the aisle to seek solutions for our district as well as the state of Missouri. But my main focus is constituent services – getting to know the individual in the various agencies here to bring results for individuals who may have problems that they’re facing.”

That comment appears to conform with Walker's advice about serving in the legislative minority: "Don’t get up and be a smart aleck. And don’t get up and pound on your chest too much." 

"When you’re young or relatively new to the system, when you’re on the floor you don’t need to crack too many jokes," he added. "Because that doesn’t you much good." 

Sail to the moon

Peters' win in the 76th District was relatively low key, especially since he faced no Republican opposition. The same couldn't be said for the race in Lawrence County's 157th District, which became vacant after Gov. Jay Nixon appointed state Rep. Don Ruzicka, R-Mt. Vernon, to the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole.

Ultimately, Republican Mike Moon dispatched former state Rep. Charles Dake, D-Miller, in a race that brought the House Republicans back up to 110 members. That's significant, because it means that House Republicans still have a veto-proof majority if Smith wins his congressional race.

For Moon, the April 2 election represents an impressive electoral reversal of fortune. The Ash Grove resident received 4.3 percent of the vote in a crowded GOP primary in 2010 for the 7th District Congressional seat. And he lost decisively to incumbent U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, last year for that same seat.

Besides achieving the rare feat of winning a state legislative race after unsuccessfully running against an incumbent congressman, Moon's win ensures a vital tradition will continue. Both Moon and Ruzicka have tremendous mustaches. 

Perhaps Lawrence County voters wanted to stick with a candidate with familiar facial hair.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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