The Youngest Lawmakers in the Country Take the Political Stage

Twenty-year-old Jacob Bachmeier is getting class credit this month for all the time he’s spending at Montana’s State Capitol.

Bachmeier is not an intern, and he’s not an aide.

He’s a state lawmaker representing his hometown.

A student at Montana State University – Northern, his elected office is also scoring him credits so he graduates on time.

Bachmeier just began his second term in Montana’s House of Representatives. He was first elected at age 18 in 2016 as a high school senior in Havre.

Rep. Jacob Bachmeier
Jacob Bachmeier, 20, represents his hometown in Montana’s House of Representatives.

“I represent a large amount of young Montanans, and my representation is important,” he said.

Bachmeier is the youngest state lawmaker in Montana, and at the time of his election, he was the youngest state lawmaker in the nation.

His experience is rare. In 2014, less than 5 percent of state lawmakers nationwide were under the age of 30.

Showing up

Young people are sometimes stereotyped as politically disinterested.

But recent polling suggests that picture isn’t entirely accurate.

Nearly half of Americans aged 15 to 34 say they’re paying more attention to politics than before. The same amount say they believe people like them can change the government.

The 2018 midterms sent 20 additional millennials to Congress — defined as those born between 1981 and 1996 — increasing their ranks 420 percent.

On top of that, three 19-year-olds were sworn in this year as state legislators, making them the youngest state lawmakers in the country.

In West Virginia, Republican Caleb Hanna ran on a platform urging vocational training and broadband expansion; in New Hampshire, Democrat Cassandra Levesque ran to end child marriage in the state; and in Wisconsin, Democrat Kalan Haywood ran on a platform that addresses the state’s high incarceration rates.

“We have to stop this revolving door in the justice system,” Haywood said. “The people that want to do good, we have to make sure we give them the resources and materials to do good.”

Rewriting the script

Rep. Kalan Haywood
Rep. Kalan Haywood, 19, was sworn into the Wisconsin Assembly.

Haywood has been politically involved since he was 13, first working on campaigns for Wisconsin State Rep. David Bowen, who he now serves alongside in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Haywood was appointed to Milwaukee’s Youth Council at age 14. In the Assembly, he represents Milwaukee’s 16th district, which includes some of the richest and poorest parts of the city.

“Now at 19, I’m changing the narrative of what young black men mean when they say they’re ‘going to work for the state,’” Haywood said.

That’s a phrase he said used to mean “going to prison.”

Haywood, who is black, sees himself as a role model for other young people like him.

“The average age for a state lawmaker is a 55 year old white man,” he said, adding, “I wanted to win for everyone else. I wanted to open the door for others to be active.”

Twenty percent of young adults say they’re engaging in more political activism than they used to.

For 26-year-old Ryan Fecteau, that’s because there’s a sense of immediacy to this political moment.

“There are decisions being made every day at all levels that are impacting our lives and our lives down the road,” he said. “And I can’t imagine not wanting to be part of the solution.”

Fecteau has been a Democratic member of the Maine House of Representatives since 2014, when he was 22.

When he’s thinking about climate change, he says, he’s thinking about his own prospective children and grandchildren. When he’s thinking about student loans, he’s thinking about his own student loan debt.

To him, they’re not abstract issues, but problems with real weight.

Age as perspective

Bachmeier is a member of Montana’s House Education Committee, a position he believes he’s uniquely qualified for as someone who only graduated high school two and a half years ago.

“I can tell them how their decisions have impacted me recently,” he said.

He is proposing a bill that would help expand mental health services in Montana’s school system, especially in rural areas, by allowing schools to co-opt services.

Colleagues typically welcome his perspective, though there have been times where he’s been a target for his age.

During a particularly heated debate, a colleague once told him, “When you’re older, you’ll understand.”

“The reality was, there were 55-plus other people that agreed with me on the issue and it really had nothing to do with my age,” he said.

Finding common ground

Ryan Fecteau
Ryan Fecteau serves in Maine’s House of Representatives.

For the last few sessions, Fecteau has served in a split government, with a Republican-held Senate and Democratically-held House.

Last session Fecteau chaired Maine’s House Labor and Economic Development Committee. The committee was famously tasked with re-writing a law after a $5 million labor dispute over a single Oxford comma.

Even though Fecteau’s co-chair was a Republican, and he was a Democrat, working together wasn’t a problem.

“I probably developed one of the best relationships I had,” he said. “We disagreed on many issues, but at the end of the day we also knew how to work on common ground.”

Finding common ground is a skill Fecteau first learned in college, as the first openly gay speaker of his student association at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Back then, he fought for official recognition of an LGBT student organization on campus.

“I definitely had some adverse politics,” he said. “And I had to build relationships with people who fundamentally disagreed with me.”

In the Legislature last year, Fecteau introduced a bill that would ban conversion therapy in Maine, sharing his personal experience with it. The bill was ultimately vetoed by Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

Maine now has a new governor, who Fecteau says has pledged to put the bill into law this time around.

New challenges

Haywood was just sworn into office Jan. 7. It wasn’t until he found his new office and sat behind the desk that the real weight of the task ahead of him sunk in.

But it’s one he’s excited about.

“This is a job that no matter what, it’s going to be hard, whether you’re 19 or 91 like Senator (Fred) Risser,” he said.

He’s encouraged by the support he has received so far, and says he can learn something from everyone.

That’s the approach Fecteau took, too.

“I was an observer for my first year in the legislature, getting an understanding of how the whole thing works,” Fecteau said. “And that in itself gave me a lot of respect from those I was working with.”

It’s one of the reasons he says he is now serving as assistant majority leader.

Getting started

Curiosity to learn is the reason Bachmeier became involved in politics in the first place.

At 15, he was a bag boy at a local grocery store.

One day he carried groceries for Montana State Sen. Greg Jergeson. Bachmeier told him he was a big fan, and the two got to talking as they walked to the senator’s car.

“He was in the middle of a campaign season, and he asked me if I wanted to get involved in his campaign,” Bachmeier recalls. “And I said, ‘Sure.’”

Today, Bachmeier represents one of the most rural parts of Montana — actually, it’s one of the most rural parts of the country.

He said it’s important for other young people to get involved, no matter where they live. But involvement doesn’t look the same for everyone.

“Politics is a civic responsibility that there is a role for everyone in some way,” Bachmeier said. “Not everyone wants to be the person directly voting on decisions.”

Write letters to the editor. Call your legislators. Go door knocking next election season for candidates you support.

“I think it’s actually crucial; the best voter is an educated voter,” Haywood said. “I want to see young people taking charge and initiative and leading.”

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.