Despite Party Differences, Millennial State Lawmakers Find Common Ground

May 28, 2014

The Washington legislature is trending a bit younger these day. Nine of the 147 members are under-34 year olds. 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.

The four youngest members of the Washington legislature are two Democrats and two Republicans who find generational common ground in spite of their political differences.
Credit Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

It’s not every day the four youngest members of the Washington legislature gather in one place. So, as they sat down recently for an interview, an official legislative photographer snapped photos.

If you could see the photo it would show four fresh-faced young men in suits and ties sitting around a small table. After the photographer left and the door shut …

I asked this quartet of millennial lawmakers to introduce themselves.

Han Zeiger: “So I’m Hans Zeiger 29 years old, just turned 29, and party is Republican.”

Brady Walkinshaw: “I’m Brady Walkinshaw. I’m the oldest of this group. And I’m a Democrat.”

Brandon Vick: “I’m Brandon Vick. Also 29 years old and I’m a Republican.”

Joe Fitzgibbon: “I’m Joe Fitzgibbon. I’m 27, I’m a Democrat. At the moment, I am the youngest member of the state legislature.”

These are the one-percenters. That is the one percent of state lawmakers nationally who are under 30. It’s a one percent club these four millennials are proud to belong to.

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

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

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

Joe Fitzgibbon: “Olympia’s 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.”

Kei Kowashima-Ginsberg: “I really love hearing these stories.”

That’s 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.

Kei Kowashima-Gingsberg: “Especially at the state level where things are just relatively more likely to move, 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.

Hans Zeiger: “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 in our conversation that theory was put to the test. I asked Democrat Brady Walkinshaw about being an openly gay lawmaker.

Brady Walkinshaw: “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 was speaking, Republican Brandon Vick sat next to him stunned. He had no idea Walkinshaw is gay.

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

Vick then put his hand on Walkinshaw’s shoulder.

Brandon Vick: “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.”

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

Brandon Vick: “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 Chrittenden. He runs a voter registration campaign called The Washington Bus. He offered this blunt assessment.

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

Chrittenden 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, Chrittenden made a very millennial reference to a song by one of his favorite rappers, a guy named David Banner.

Toby Chrittenden: “So I like to say stuntin’ like voting is a habit. 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.”

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 Democrat Joe Fitzgibbon – one of the millennial lawmakers from earlier. 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.” I asked Fitzgibbon about this.

Joe Fitzgibbon: “Hm. Yes.
Austin Jenkins: “That seemed like a very millennial faux pas perhaps?
Joe Fitzgibbon: “What a good reminder of the internet and how poorly chosen words can go far and wide.”

Fitzgibbon says he learned a valuable lesson.

Joe Fitzgibbon: “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.