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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Despite Party Differences, Millennial State Lawmakers Find Common Ground

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network

The Washington legislature is trending a bit younger these day. Nine of the 147 members are under 34 years old.

The four youngest members of the Washington legislature are two Democrats and two Republicans. This quartet of millennial lawmakers is made up of:

These are the one-percenters. That is, the 1 percent of state lawmakers nationally who are under 30. It’s a one-percent club these four millennials are proud to belong to.
These millennials are breaking some stereotypes about their generation. At the same time, they’re trying to encourage other more disengaged millennials to get involved. They’re also finding some generational common ground across party lines.

“You know I think being a citizen-legislator in my twenties is the very best thing I could be doing with my life,” says Zeiger.

“It’s all about for me how we can create inclusive economic development that really brings everyone up with it,” adds Walkinshaw.

“I come from small business," says Vick. "One of my goals here is really to get into a situation where folks are excited about being entrepreneurs again.”

“Olympia is a great place to be if you want to be able to, in relatively short order, move into a position where you can actually make a difference,” says Fitzgibbon.

Generational shift

“I really love hearing these stories,” says Kei Kowashima-Ginsberg. She studies millennials at Tufts University in Boston. She says the fact these young office holders aren’t waiting to become leaders bodes well for the political system.

“Especially at the state level where things are just relatively more likely to move," she says. "I think that’s where we’re going to start to see a lot of innovations.”

In many respects these millennial lawmakers display the traits of their generation. In other ways, they’re outliers. The Pew Research Center reports half of millennials consider themselves to be political independents with no party preference or loyalty. When they do vote, millennials are much more likely to vote Democratic. They’re also more liberal on social issues like same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization.

Republican State Representative Hans Zeiger feels that generational shift.

“I think there really is a sense of moving on from some of these hot-button issues that have been very divisive in previous generations.”

A bit later, that theory was put to the test when I ask Democrat Brady Walkinshaw about being an openly-gay lawmaker.

“Had I thought about running for office 20 years ago this would have been something – even in my own party -- would have been a much larger issue.”

As Walkinshaw is speaking, Republican Brandon Vick looks stunned. He had no idea Walkinshaw is gay.

“I’m kind of set aback here because honestly I would have had no idea.”

Putting his hand on Walkinshaw’s shoulder, Vick adds, “And by no means am I going to talk to him any less now, of course now, that’s just very interesting and within our party I think we are having some trends in that direction.”

Engaging other millennials

Not surprisingly, all four of these young millennial politicians are interested in how to get younger people more engaged in electoral politics. Vick recalls trying to recruit fellow millennials to help on his first campaign.

“I have friends that when I got involved five years ago and tried to get to people to go doorbell with me didn’t care.”

A recent symposium in Olympia focused on the topic of “disengaged youth.” One of the panelists was a millennial named Toby Crittenden. He runs a voter registration campaign called The Washington Bus. He offered this blunt assessment:

“Politics is not cool. Politics will never be cool. I’m so sorry.”

Crittenden says the trick with millennials is to take the campaign to them, where they hang out and also get them in the habit of participating. To emphasize his point, Crittenden made a very millennial reference to a song “Get Like Me” by David Banner. One of the lyrics says, “Stuntin’ is a habit.”

“So I like to say stuntin’ -- like voting -- is a habit,” Crittenden says. “Voting is absolutely a learned behavior. It’s something that you start doing, you get in the habit of doing and you get really good at doing.”

Getting social

One way millennial politicians try to engage young voters is through social media. But like their peers, sometimes they’re not too smart about what they post.

Consider the experience of Fitzgibbon -- currently the youngest member of the state legislature. You might recall his tweet heard round the world. It happened after the Seahawks lost to the Arizona Cardinals last December. In a fit of millennial pique over the loss, Fitzgibbon called Arizona a “desert racist wasteland.”

A very millennial faux pas perhaps?

“What a good reminder of the internet and how poorly chosen words can go far and wide,” he says.

Fitzgibbon says he learned a valuable lesson.

“When you are an elected official you have to choose your words a little bit more carefully than maybe others in my age group do.”

Clearly Fitzgibbon hopes to be remembered for more than his tweet-gate. And therein lies an interesting dichotomy about these millennial lawmakers. They are the first generation to grow up in the world of instant social media. But the issues they care about are anything but instant: global climate change and what a 21st century state government should look like.

These millennial lawmakers may tweet in real time, but they’re thinking generationally.


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Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."