Published June 12, 2012
Competing alongside a candidate crop whose median age is more than twice their own, two Georgia legislative hopefuls are challenging a dogma more pervasive and pernicious than even the entrenchment of the monied political class: the feigned handicap of age, meticulously fashioned by rivals nearing their twilight of power and years.
For Republican twenty-somethings Michael Caldwell and Trey Kelley, both among the youngest in nation to pursue state legislative seats, the calls to indulge the unyielding throne of incumbency grow louder by the day.
Tilting at the bulwark of the establishment--the stonewalling political imperative that our elders, tainted and embattled the lot, know how to best chart tomorrow's course--the pair have instead fomented a revolt against the old guard.
The duo are learning now the same sour lessons I learned years before, then an uncharacteristically young spokesman in my teenage years at the Republican National Committee. The establishment is older, wealthier and more brutal than the romanticized political musings of Aaron Sorkin that punctuated our youth. In fact, they're mean as hell.
But these two have learned better, faster, assembling operations that outstrip the average federal bid and exhibiting the disciplined swagger of seasoned vets. Always emphasizing moxie over mileage, never veering far from their carefully choreographed assault on the broken system they thread a needle few can.
Wait your turn: it's the requisite call to acquiesce all young challengers are told. Most assent.
A twenty-year-old juggling college with a part-time campaign against a multi-termed incumbent, that was the entreat Caldwell heard when he staged his first primary bid two years ago.
Save for his closest allies, Caldwell's campaign struck the state's political complex as little more than a pipe dream. But then he registered within a few hundred votes of the incumbent in a down ticket race that saw north of 5,000 ballots cast.
Despite working off the curve Caldwell set the cycle earlier, Kelley's similarly-profiled bid is buoyed in no small measure by his own southern savvy. This twangy law student won the chairmanship last year of his west Georgia county Republican party at just 23, the youngest in the group's history.
He trained his sights higher last week, qualifying as a candidate for a state House race in which his primary opponent is nearly twice his age. He awaits a three-term Democratic incumbent legislator in the fall.
The question of age-as-competency is writ large across both bids.
Together they are proving wrong the mythology of incumbent wisdom. Together they represent two of the most professional, transparent organizations in the state. Together they represent what could be: ethical, accessible, dynamic lawmaking.
Once propelled to Washington by the belief that one kid, even one from a rural Georgia town in which peanuts outnumbered people by a 100-to-1 margin, could change the nation's trajectory, my green optimism subtly, surely surrendered to the cynicism that typifies our politics.
It was that cynicism that wrought record deficits with little hope of solvency, that forfeited education to a school system producing students less prepared than those who walked before them, that vaulted corrupt pols into influential leadership posts with only whispers of objection.
But it is the optimism for which these two have become avatars that promises to change it, for me and Georgia.
James Richardson serves as vice president of Hynes Communications and was previously an advisor and spokesman for Governors Haley Barbour and Jon Huntsman and the Republican National Committee. He edits the new Georgia political and business blog, Georgia Tipsheet.