In Massachusetts, the legislature is back in action. Of the roughly 200 Beacon Hill lawmakers that will hash out a new budget and other issues this year, just 7 percent are millennials, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. By comparison, that generation makes up 30 percent of Massachusetts residents. According to recent surveys, young people are overwhelmingly uninterested in running for office, or generally unengaged in politics.
But what about the few who buck the generational trend? Several of them are in western Massachusetts, including state Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow.
Lesser was elected in 2014. It wasn’t all that long ago that he was on the staff of one campaign that pushed many millennials toward politics…at least for a while: Barack Obama’s run for president in 2008.
“At the time it was really about empowering young people and about a generational change in our politics,” Lesser says.
Eight years later, Lesser says attitudes have shifted.
“I think there has been some sobering no doubt, and there’s been a little bit of a…more grown up kind of feeling to these efforts,” he says, “but I think there’s still quite a lot of optimism.”
Lesser might have optimism, but the numbers aren’t on his side. According to a recent survey, nearly 90 percent of people age 13 to 25 have no interest in entering politics.
Lesser says he’s noticed some generational gaps with his older colleagues, like during a hearing last year on regulations for ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft.
“In that hearing, I was pretty sure as I was listening to the questions of some of my colleagues…that I was probably the only member of that committee that had actually used Uber or used a smartphone to do some of these services that all of us our age kind of take for granted,” Lesser says.
By the way, when Lesser talks about “our” generation, he’s including me. Full disclosure: I am a millennial, but I’ve never used a ridesharing app.
Anyways, there are some smaller challenges for young lawmakers. Lesser says he’s often mistaken for an aide by State House security.
“So I always make sure I carry my ID badge with me so I can [say] ‘no, no, I’m here as an elected official,'” Lesser says, laughing.
Fellow State Senator Ben Downing of Pittsfield tells similar stories. He was 25 years old when he was first elected in 2006.
At a recent “Coffee and Conversation” he hosted in the town of Chester, one of Downing’s constituents asks about adding a new exit off the Mass. Turnpike.
“You know why the Pike runs through the southern Berkshires?” Downing rhetorically asks. “I mean, the Pike runs through the southern Berkshires because the state senator from the Berkshires at that point was from the southern Berkshires.” His audience chuckles.
Downing wasn’t always drawing laughs. He faced some skepticism when he first ran for office.
“I think I was called a ‘nice young man’ a Guinness Book record number of times, which was code for: too young to do it, but not a bad kid,” Downing says.
Downing says when he showed his knowledge on the issues, however, people were receptive. Over the years, he’s clearly built trust. Then, a few weeks ago, Downing announced he won’t seek re-election this year. He says he made a promise to himself he wouldn’t serve for more than ten years. At the same time, Downing says he’d like to see a more diverse legislature in age, race and gender.
“It’s about making sure that talented people in any of these populations think of themselves and can see themselves in those positions,” he says.
That could be happening in Springfield, where Marcus Williams was just elected to the City Council.
“I definitely got the ‘how old are you? You don’t look like you’re past eighteen,'” Williams says.
Williams is in fact 27. He says he may be able to inspire young people to get into politics.
“I plan to still knock on some doors, and knocking on those doors, I hope to interact with a lot more younger folk so they can see my face and see, y’know, I’m not a man with gray hair…I kind of look like them,” he says.
Still, there are those long odds in getting young people interested in politics. Again, almost 90 percent have no interest in running for office. For Williams, there was a mentor who put him on the other side of that number: his uncle, Bud Williams, now a fellow member of the City Council.
“He played a factor in maybe encouraging me to take that final step to do it,” Williams says. “I was almost convinced, but you know, your own doubts sometimes creep in.”
A family connection also paved the way for Ben Downing. His father was the District Attorney in Berkshire County.
Encouragement from parents can help, according to Jennifer Lawless, a professor at American University who co-authored that study on political ambition.
“We did find that young people whose parents encouraged them to go into politics, or who conveyed messages about the importance of public service, were more interested to think about running for office,” Lawless says.
However, they were in the minority. 75 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t talk about politics with their parents.
Despite the bleak numbers, Lawless says there’s hope. Young people are very concerned with making the world a better place, but it’s a matter of showing that politics is a way to do that. She says it’s important they change their minds, because there are over 500,000 elected positions in the United States.
“So when we say that we’re concerned about the next generation, it’s because we need half a million people to serve in those positions, Lawless says. “We want make sure that we have the best and the brightest and the most passionate serving, not the people that are willing to take those positions because no one else is interested.”
Now that state Senator Ben Downing’s not running, one of those openings is in Berkshire County. I asked him if he hopes a young person runs for it.
“I hope everybody does,” Downing said with a laugh. “There are many talented young people, there are many people who have played leadership roles in our community for some time. I just hope there’s lots of voices, and lots of interest, and lots of energy.”
Millennials, you too can learn to craft such careful answers. All it takes is a run for office.