Starting young: Is 30 the new 50 in politics?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Although President Barak Obama is the third youngest elected president in the White House, at 48 he's old enough to be the father of some of the political hopefuls campaigning in Iowa this year.

Meet Mike Denklau, Democratic candidate running against Rep. Steve King for the District 5 U.S. House of Representatives seat.

Denklau is 27.

The Council Bluffs resident thinks his youth is in his favor.

"It helps a lot with -- one -- gaining attention, because it's something of interest for a lot of folks," Denklau said during a visit to Le Mars last week.

He pointed to the election of Aaron Schock, 28, of Illinois, to the U.S. House.

Schock is the currently the youngest member of the U.S. Legislature, although history has seen a few younger than him.

"I also think it's very helpful in drawing a contrast," Denklau said of his age. "Steve King and I differ in many ways, including our age, and that allows me to focus more on talking about where we can go in the future."

Denklau's catch phrase? Revitalizing the district and stepping away from the status quo.

King, 61, has served in the House since 2003.

The average age for members of the House is 56.

For U.S. Senate, the average is higher -- nearly 62 years. The youngest member is Florida Sen. George LeMieux, 41.

On the flip side of youth is experience, at least according to some voters.

One 45-year-old woman from Le Mars said she'd consider voting on young politicians depending on their background, views and experience.

But younger than 25? She might be more cautious.

"By the time you're 30 you can do a lot, but 25? Maybe," she said.

A 20 year old who said she'd be excited by younger politicians' ability to bring a different perspective but admitted she'd be a little hesitant, too.

"I'd kind of worry about experience, how much they have under their belt," she said.

In the nations' state legislatures, only about 4 percent of legislators are between 20 and 34 years old, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The largest majority is between 50 and 64 years old -- nearly 48 percent.

A 33 year old running for a seat in the Iowa Senate has a resumé that says experience doesn't have to come with age.

Bill Anderson, of Pierson, is seeking the District 27 seat currently held by Ron Wieck, of Sioux City, who announced he won't seek re-election. Anderson was in Le Mars last week on an tour through the district, which covers eastern Plymouth county, northern Woodbury County and Cherokee County.

Anderson may be barely in his 30s, but he still has almost two decades of political experience under his belt.

"I was 14 when I started volunteering," Anderson said. "I really got involved by helping Gov. Terry Branstad in 1994."

The 33 year old has also served on the state Republican committee for six years and has been involved in Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Steve King's campaigns.

For Anderson, the decision to run was about timing, not age.

He and his wife, Angie, have a 20-month-old son with a daughter due in August.

"We feel that, while our family is young, it's very young, so this may be the time," Anderson said. "Otherwise I may be waiting until I'm in my 50s until we have another opportunity. We said, 'Well, the opportunity is here and now. We need to take it.'"

Will having younger people running for office inspire other young people to be more involved in politics?

According to the Pottawattamie County Democratic Party Chair Sue Lett, who spoke with Denklau about young Democrat groups, the answer is yes.

"She said, 'To be honest, you've brought in more young people to the party than anyone else,'" Denklau said.

His campaign has drawn in college students, he said.

Denklau and a 28-year-old woman running for office in Nebraska are looking at working together to light the fire under young voters.

"We're looking to try and do sort of a civics tour and visit high schools and colleges -- try to get young people registered to vote at the very least and hopefully get them to be more active," he said. "Our generation, unfortunately, is not as active, does not vote as much as they should. Therefore that equates to less attention in Congress, our issues being ignored. If we can start to change that dynamic, it would be a huge success."

Some young voters say they're not as concerned about a candidate's age.

What they want to see? Relevance.

A 19 year old from Merrill said it's hard to get interested when what politicians are talking about doesn't connect with his life.

"If they talked about things that caught my interest it would be better," he said. "I'm not 40."

A 20-year-old Le Mars woman had a similar view.

"It's not so much about age," she said. "It's more about how they represent young people and acknowledge them."

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