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Young People Run For Office, Seek To Affect Policy

By Michelle Austein
USINFO Staff Writer

Young People Run for Office Seeking To Affect Policy

On the campaign trail, Sam Rasoul, a Democratic candidate for Congress in western Virginia, often is asked the same question first: "How old are you?"

The 26-year-old says he routinely is asked why he is running for Congress at such a young age.

"I tell them I am running for Congress because I am young," Rasoul told USINFO in a recent interview. "I have more invested in the future than the people sitting up there on Capitol Hill right now."

While young Americans often are criticized for not voting, many are showing that young people can be political leaders despite their age.

Rasoul will have to defeat an eight-term congressman to win the Virginia 6th Congressional District seat. He sees his campaign as an opportunity to talk to students. "If they can see someone from their own generation ... trying to become involved ... maybe that can be a source of inspiration for them," he said.

While talking with students, Rasoul has learned that "they don't care about Republicans or Democrats. What they do care about is issues -- especially how issues directly affect them."

"If you care about these issues," Rasoul said, "you need to be involved in politics -- because politics is everything."


If elected, Rasoul would be one of the youngest members of Congress in history. But young Americans' involvement in politics dates back to the country's earliest days. Twelve of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were 35 or younger. The youngest person ever elected to the House of Representatives was William Charles Cole Claiborne, who was elected in 1797 at the age of 22. Technically, he was in violation of the Constitution, which sets the minimum age for serving in the House at 25.

Rasoul would not be the only under-30 leader in U.S. politics. In early November, Pittsburgh's Luke Ravenstahl, the country's youngest big-city mayor, won re-election at age 27. Previously serving as Pittsburgh's City Council president, Ravenstahl became mayor in September 2006 when the then-serving mayor died in office.

Though they may not lead cities as large, there are many mayors serving at even younger ages.

At age 20, Michael Sessions leads the 8,200-person town of Hillsdale, Michigan. He won the position in 2005 while he was still in high school. At age 18, Sessions defeated the incumbent mayor in a write-in campaign. He had to run a write-in campaign because he was only 17 at the time of the deadline to get his name on the ballot, too young to qualify for inclusion.

Sessions, now a college sophomore, told USINFO that among the highlights of being mayor is the ability to represent your fellow citizens and set policies that will affect the future.

Because of their age, Sessions said, young leaders are not embedded in any political network, allowing them to form their own opinions about policies to enact and people to trust. This can mean that the people they come to trust are different from those who have been in power a long time, which provides an opportunity for new leadership.

After his victory, Sessions quickly learned that as such a young mayor, he would be not only a leader of his town, but also an example for young people around the world.

A week after the election, he found a satellite truck from a Japanese television station parked outside his parents' home -- the television crew thought Sessions' story would send a message to Japanese teenagers that "they can make a difference. ... It's just tearing down the barriers and trying to get involved," Sessions said.

"They thought it was unique that a younger person stepped up and said, 'Hey look, I want to make a difference here.' I might not have all the education, but I don't know if that's a prerequisite for getting involved," Sessions said. Media from many other countries came to Hillsdale as well.

In summer 2007, Sessions addressed the International Leadership Summit of the Americas in Quito, Ecuador. He told other young leaders that they can affect the future simply by "showing that you want to make a difference in your community, that you want to make a difference in your country."

Young people "are the future of your country," Sessions told the young leaders. "So you need to start shaping it now and get involved somehow."

Many of those young people could have long political careers ahead of them. Democrat Joe Biden first won his Delaware Senate seat defeating an incumbent at age 29, becoming one of the youngest senators in U.S. history. When Democrat Dennis Kucinich was elected mayor of Cleveland at age 31 in 1977, he was then the youngest big-city mayor. Today, both are running for president.


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