Young Politicians Stepping Forward to Run For Offices

Eric Gregory is only 20 and still at college but he is running for the state legislature in the upcoming November elections as a Democratic candidate.

Gregory, a Michigan State University student, will turn 21 in January, just in time to meet the minimum age requirement.

He will be running against a Republican incumbent in a traditionally Republican stronghold

"Originally, there was the impression that I was going to be the sacrificial lamb candidate," says Gregory, a political theory student. "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.

The mayor of Torrington, Connecticut, 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 are having to compare birth dates to see who is 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 such barriers frequently.

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.

There is 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 has 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 has 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 is 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.