Vermont’s youngest state lawmaker, 26-year-old Kesha Ram, recalls times when other Statehouse staffers and lawmakers mistook her for a legislative page, or joked that they owned shoes older than her, when she first was elected to office at age 21.
Ram seems to be of two minds about being the state’s youngest state legislator. On the one hand, she regards it as a “huge honor and pretty rewarding.” On the other hand, she says, she’s worked hard to throw off the baggage and negative connotations that inevitably come with the label of youth.
“If you act like the youngest legislator, and set yourself up as the youngest legislator, people are going to treat you like that,” said Ram. “That’s not what you want. Don’t get caught in the trap of acting like the youngest, because one day, you won’t be anymore.”
Ram believes that there aren’t enough young people in Vermont state politics, especially in elected office. She attributed this partly to a citizen legislature which doesn’t offer employment benefits like health care, sorely needed by young professionals, and partly to fundraising challenges faced by younger candidates.
At a quiet Burlington panel discussion last week, three young politicians talked about how balancing a career with demanding campaign and legislative work is especially hard for young professionals running for office.
“The reason, in part, why there are so many older people in the Legislature is that you really kind of have to be retired to run a serious campaign in some cases, and then to serve,” said Paul Dame, a House candidate for Essex Junction. “The average person can’t really go to their boss and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to take the first four or five months off my job.’ … It’s still a big hurdle for the average young person in an entry-level job to do that.”
The challenge of running while working full time is a reality in spite of a a state statute that is supposed to entitle state lawmakers to take an absence from their jobs for official duties.
After the panel, the youngest state senator, Tim Ashe of Burlington, 35, was cautious about asserting the notion that there aren’t enough state officials under 40. “It’s a good question,” mused Ashe. “The House in particular has a number of people who are on the younger end. In the Senate it’s a little bit lonely.”
“I got elected when I was 31,” Ashe said. “There was a 39-year-old then, and then the next youngest was like 50. Now I’m 35, and the next youngest is like … 50.”
According to data compiled by Brigham Young University political science professor Adam Brown, the average age of politicians in the Vermont Legislature is about 60 in the House, and 63 in the Senate. Vermont isn’t terribly out of sync with other states — the national average is about 57.*
Between 1966 and 2006 the average age for state senators was 55, and 54 for House members, according to Clark Bensen, a political analyst who runs the company Polidata. Republican legislators were on average older than Democrats: 57 to 52 in the Senate, and 56 to 52 in the House.
This year, the Democrats have 10 candidates combined running for the House and Senate who are under 40, including Ram and Ashe. The Progressive Party is fielding two candidates under 40 for the House, Chris Pearson and Katherine Sims, with Ashe for Senate, while the state GOP doesn’t keep information on the ages of their candidates, said chair Jack Lindley.
The Republicans have at least Senate candidate Dustin Degree and House candidate Paul Dame as two candidates under 40.
Retired Middlebury College political scientist Eric Davis says that Vermont’s citizen Legislature splits most lawmakers into three broad categories: retired people, independent professionals who can structure their work flexibly, and those who aren’t the primary earners in their household.
“Those three categories make up a very large part of the Legislature,” said Davis. “There are few who are the full-time principal earners in their households. … My sense is that age structure of the Legislature probably hasn’t changed all that much” over the past decade or so, he said. “A lot of people run for the Legislature for their first time in their 60s.”
In 2012, each state representative and senator received a salary of about $605 a week while in session, 5 percent less than in 2009. They also receive modest meal, accommodation, and travel allowances if they commute and stay in Montpelier.
Some lawmakers, like former House majority leader Lucy Leriche, leave the Statehouse partly so they can earn more money. Others, like retiring Rep. Oliver Olsen, decide not to run, because the work-Legislature balance is too much to handle, especially while raising a family.
“The way the Legislature is structured today, it’s nearly impossible for someone with a young family, someone who has a professional career, and lives away from Montpelier, to serve,” said Olsen. “I think that’s why we see a disproportionate number of people in the Legislature who are either retired or of independent means.”
As for younger politicians in the Legislature, Olsen said: “I definitely think that the makeup of the Legislature is not necessarily reflective of the makeup of the state.”
Vermont’s oldest state legislator is 90-year-old Bill Aswad, who has served for 18 years. In the 2012 election cycle, the youngest major party candidate for statewide office is Cassandra Gekas, a political newcomer, at 30: the oldest candidate is attorney general candidate Jack McMullen, who’s 70.
In an interview, Rep. Aswad called himself “lucky” for just happening to be the state’s oldest lawmaker.
“I don’t think it’s changed very much,” he said. “I think I see a little more young people, but I don’t see any dramatic changes that affect the way the House is run.”
Aswad didn’t think older representatives should step down to make room for younger bloods. He chuckled, and said: “My constituents can retire me by not electing me.” Being at the Statehouse reminds Aswad of college, he said, which is partly why he likes it so much.
* The data compiled by Brown is incomplete for Vermont, accounting for only 128 of 150 House members, and 25 out of 30 in the Senate. Brown compiled the data from national research nonprofit Project Vote Smart, which tracks political biographies and basic information on candidates and officials. Still, the data is likely the best available: the Vermont Secretary of State doesn’t track the ages of officials, since this isn’t information they legally require from lawmakers or candidates.