Pennsylvania House of Representatives is in session.
By Kate Giammarise / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- Sit in the gallery of the state Senate or House in Harrisburg and you might notice something beyond the spectacular murals, stained glass windows and marble walls.
There are a lot of gray-haired legislators on the floor in both chambers.
In Pennsylvania, the average age of a state legislator is 54, according to a recent examination of legislatures by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Conference of State Legislatures. The study found New Hampshire had the oldest legislature nationally, with an average legislator age of 66.
“Legislators from the baby-boomer generation [those born between 1946 and 1964] have a disproportionate influence in America’s legislatures, with nearly twice as many members as their overall share of the U.S. population would warrant,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. “The millennial generation [those born from 1981-1997] is seriously underrepresented in both state legislatures and Congress.”
Pollster Terry Madonna attributes the dearth of young Pennsylvania legislators to several factors.
Many representatives come to the job after having first held local elected office, such as being borough council members or mayors or county commissioners.
“That training is essential in getting into the House,” Mr. Madonna said, though he noted that trend has lessened in recent years, with more “tea party” Republicans coming to the job from outside the party system. Additionally, “historically, we've had a strong party system in our state ... you have to go through the [party] chairs” to seek elected office.
Mr. Madonna also noted polling shows 19 to 29 year-olds, while caring about civic and community engagement, tend to have less interest in politics.
“It's not like guys like me don't encourage them,” said Mr. Madonna, who is professor of public affairs and director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll and Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. “I say, 'pick a party, get active, run for office.’ ”
State Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, the second-youngest state House member at 27, has another theory.
“It could be just the types of struggles the Millennial generation has been going through. You could still have sometimes 30-year-old people living at home ... It’s just a tough economic environment we've been brought up in,” that could make it harder to run for office, Ms. White theorized.
There’s also an advantage to incumbency that tends to keep the same people in office once they are elected, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a professor at Widener University. Additionally, the state Constitution mandates House members must be at least 21 and Senators must be at least 25, Mr. Leckrone said.
In an institution that values seniority and rewards longevity, younger members start out on the bottom of the totem pole.
“As a younger legislator, it takes that much more to earn respect,” said Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, the state House’s youngest member by a few days also at 27, who is in his first term. “I've been working my tail off.”
But a lack of younger legislators can mean their views and priorities aren't represented and advocated for in the Capitol.
“If we have a disproportionate amount of older legislators, you can guess that the types of issues that get attention may very well reflect the concerns of that generation,” said Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Polls show younger people generally have more positive views of gay rights, and of marijuana legalization. A bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and public accommodations has been stuck in the legislature for years, despite the efforts of advocates. Medical marijuana bills have passed the state Senate but not the House.
Mr. Kaufer, who was born in 1988, said members of his generation generally tend to have different perspectives on gay rights and drug addiction than older Pennsylvanians.
“I think college loans come up a lot [as a concern] with my generation,” said Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, who is 32. “We have just been crushed [by them] and it is just getting worse.”
While polling shows millennials tend to be skeptical of politics, they believe they can make positive social change in other ways.
“They haven’t channeled that community engagement into the political spectrum yet. But their views won’t be incorporated into the political system until they vote and become involved,” Mr. Leckrone said.
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.
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