At a first glance, news of the two freshmen candidates running for the campus seat on Madison’s Common Council might raise eyebrows — and not without reason. Two aspiring alders sitting below the legal drinking age is far from the norm for U.S. politics. The average age of a member of the current session of Congress is approximately 60.
For District 8, however, which encompasses all University of Wisconsin students currently living in University Housing, young candidates have been the norm. Current Ald. Zach Wood, citing a desire for young candidates to step forward as a reason for vacating his seat, is just 25 and was a UW senior when elected.
While 2018 did bring a historic wave of candidates outside traditional demographics — women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community — here in Madison, this is no new phenomenon. Rather, it’s simply the notion of an elected official representing their community — that the city’s significant student population should have a representative on Common Council who understands the issues students face. Both candidates are well aware of this. In her announcement, candidate Avra Reddy wrote“no decision in city hall can be made about us, without us,” and “a student representing students” has been a slogan of Matthew Mitnick‘s campaign.
Would-be politicians this young are often met with skepticism and oftentimes contempt by older and more conservative demographics. Dennis Prager, a radio host invited to speak in April by campus conservative group Young Americans for Freedom, was met with applause when he gave barbs such as, “You know what you learn from teens? Nothing! You know what I did as a teen? I listened!” For all their pointedness, these criticisms of youth advocates are far from factual.
Running for office alone is a commitment of time and effort which demands discipline, and all of the aforementioned candidates have a history of community involvement serving as stark disproof to claims young people cannot be ready to serve as serious elected officials. UW student Kat Kerwin was a member of Associated Students of Madison and an anti-violence organizer during her time at school before running for city council in her home of Providence, R.I. Reddy has two elections’ worth of experience working to support the Democratic Party. Mitnick is the president and founder of the campus chapter of the International City/County Management Association. All of these activists stand on solid foundations of civic engagement.
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If a question still lingers, it isn’t over the number of young people in Madison. Rather it’s, “Why not more young people everywhere else?” More broadly, it could be asked as “What needs to be done to make our government look more like the people it represents?”
Structurally, we can lower the economic barriers keeping those not particularly wealthy out of office. As a significant time commitment with part-time pay, the position of alder is closed to those who need to work full-time to support themselves. Shrinking the Common Council and raising the pay could allow for additional candidates from traditionally poorer demographics to run and win.
Socially, each one of us must fight the norms overlooking qualified candidates because of their age, gender, sexual orientation or race. In September, the police were called on Shelia Stubbs, a newly elected Wisconsin State Assembly member, on suspicion of drug dealing while she was canvassing. While this is a single, widely-reported incident, it points to a level of cultural prejudice doubtlessly pushing away many people who would make capable civil servants — and no one policy can instate tolerance.
Rather, clearing the way requires a community to consciously support those struggling against prejudice day-to-day. From the ballot box to the streets, the fight against gerrymandering, disenfranchisement and a culture of criminalized behavior are continually waged, and voting, volunteering and donating are all small, easy ways one can contribute to a more vibrant government.
In stepping aside to allow a new voice to take his place, Wood showed an admirable understanding of the role of a representative. Experience is valuable, and those who have served in office have their place in leadership — but sometimes the best way to use the influence one has gathered is to elevate new leaders. As the students of UW weigh the exciting opportunity to decide which fresh voice to send to the Common Council, what we must remember is that these chances for fresh voices are more than just ours to wait for, but also ours to create.
Ethan Carpenter ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science.