Statehouses Attracting Young 2004 Candidates

Dave Aronberg (search) is among an increasing number of young adults who've made successful forays into state lawmaking and wouldn't have it any other way.

"I want young people to see me and other young lawmakers and say that being involved in politics and getting involved is cool," said Aronberg, a Democrat and, at 32, the youngest member of the Florida state Senate. "I want them to see that politics matters to them and that one person can make a difference."

Florida's steady movement toward younger lawmakers mimics national trends; most states have at least a couple lawmakers under 30. Ohio elected a teenager to its statehouse in 2000. Derrick Seaver, then 18, is now seeking a third term.

In Minnesota, 28-year-old Rep. Tony Sertich (search) is credited by other — and older — lawmakers with helping energize young voters. Pennsylvania boasts Rep. Dave Reed, 26, who also is running for re-election.

Reed's political interest was sparked during his teens when his father was laid off twice, forcing the family to rely on unemployment insurance and food banks.

"During his time of need, the government was there as a safety net, providing for us until we got back on our feet," Reed said. "That's when I saw the good side of government, how it truly can help people who want to work hard and play by the rules."

While the average age of a lawmaker voted to serve in Tallahassee has risen steadily over the last decade, from 46 in 1994 to 50 for this year's session, there's also been an increase in the number of young politicians who have found their way into the Capitol.

Out of the 160 lawmakers in the Florida House and Senate, 13 are under 35 — and two, Reps. Marcelo Llorente and Rene Garcia, are still twentysomethings, more than four decades younger than their chamber's elders.

Political experts and scientists say the role of young lawmakers is vital in the effort to either keep — or, in many cases, make — the legislative process interesting to Gen Xers.

Some national observers say it's the biggest generational change since the baby boomers started making their way into politics three decades ago.

"Any role model is helpful," said Matthew Corrigan, an associate professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. "As younger people get involved and move up the ladder, that will encourage more people to get involved."

Term limits, approved overwhelmingly by Florida voters in 1992, have played a role in the gradual introduction of more young legislators. No longer can incumbents, who are re-elected a vast majority of the time, perpetually hang on to a seat; the constitution now limits them to eight years in one office.

And many of the freshest faces in the Florida Legislature took advantage of that amendment when claiming their seats.

"I'd never been to a legislative session before I was elected," said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, who — at 34 — is the second-youngest state senator. "But I knew people believed in term limits because they want someone with fresh perspectives. People are crying out for straight talkers."

Haridopolos, a history and political science professor at Brevard Community College, said he uses his lawmaker role as a vehicle to get into high schools and middle schools, talking to youth about the role they'll one day play in setting policy. And the Republican often hears the same comment: "You're not very old."

Aronberg also works closely with World Wrestling Entertainment's "Smackdown Your Vote!" initiative, a campaign aiming to get 1 million more young adults to vote in 2004's presidential election than did in 2000.

State law sets the minimum age for serving in the Florida Legislature at 21. The youth movement isn't limited to the state level; the youngest current congressman, Adam Putnam, 29, is from Florida and was only 26 when first sworn in.

Aronberg, whose full-time job is as a corporate litigator with a West Palm Beach law firm, was told by some power brokers in his own party that he was too young to win a state Senate seat.

In fact, Palm Beach County Democratic leaders told him they wanted him to run for another seat — on the county school board.

Ultimately, he won both their backing and the seat. Voters were drawn to his experience as an assistant U.S. attorney general and his one-year stint as a White House fellow who worked in both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

"We bring a breath of fresh air to a Legislature that developed a reputation of being non-responsive to the needs of the public," Aronberg said.