Why are ‘younger’ legislators hard to find in Vermont?

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.

State Rep. Kesha Ram, Democrat of Burlington, is 26 years old.

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.

Paul Dame, state rep candidate from Essex.

“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.

Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P of Burlington, 35, is the Vermont Senate’s youngest member.

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.

Retiring state Rep. Oliver Olsen, Republican of Jamaica.

“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.

At 90, state Rep. Bill Aswad, Democrat of Burlington, is the Vermont Legislature’s oldest member.

“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.

Nat Rudarakanchana

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  • I’m proud to be a 36-year-old Republican running for one of the two House seats for Brandon, Pittsford, and Sudbury. My wife and I run a seasonal business that is on a farmer’s schedule, which will allow me to serve energetically during the legislative session. It is important to have a diversity of ages and experiences in our legislature, and I look forward to the opportunity to work for a Vermont that our three young daughters can hope to live and work in someday. Strong families – Vibrant communities – A sustainable Vermont.

  • Justin Boland

    As a young person myself, I can’t understand how this is a problem. We are primarly distinguished by our good health and poor decisions. It makes sense that our leaders and legislators would be older, more experienced mammals.

  • Stuart Nickel

    This is actually a bigger problem than most people know. People in their 20’s and 30’s, people who have regular jobs and kids … they can’t afford to serve in the Vermont Legislature.

    People who are retired, people who have lots of money … they are the ones who can afford to be there.

    Even a young guy like Shap Smith can only serve because he has an understanding employer and a wife who is a doctor.

    Working people with kids aren’t represented very well.

  • As the youngest candidate running for senate in Washington County, I can relate to the conclusions drawn in the article. Running for office with a family and a fulltime job is hard! It turns out that the demographics of the 35-49 age range in the Legislature in Washington County is pretty representative of the county’s population. The other age groups don’t match as well.

    Here are a few statistics (with data from the US Census Bureau and ages restricted to the 29 legislative candidates – with two ages missing – in Washington County) that may help with perspective:

    Average age of all candidates: 57.4
    Average age of incumbents: 60.4
    Average age of non-incumbents: 47.4

    Percentage of Washington County population, by age range:
    20-24 6.04%
    25-34 10.80%
    35-49 21.27%
    50-64 23.67%
    65+ 14.47%

    Percentage of Washington County legislative candidates, by age range:
    20-24 0.00%
    25-34 3.45%
    35-49 20.69%
    50-64 37.93%
    65+ 37.93%

  • Wisdom is made up of several parts, and perhaps the most important part is experience. Experience comes with time.

  • Well there are 2 Republican candidates for the house in the Grand Isle-Chittenden district: myself (35) and Patrick DuPont (18). As someone who both works full time and watches my 3-year-old twin boys during the day, I can certainly attest to the limits and struggles in running a campaign. At the same time, I think the fact that I am a young, working father is one of my biggest selling points. If elected, my family will definitely face some financial struggles as we will have to find daycare for both boys (not cheap!). It would be nice to see some incentives put in place that would encourage younger folks to run for office and make it easier to do so. However, if you are passionate and care deeply about what you are doing, you will find a way to make it work.

  • Don’t forget:
    Jill Krowinski, Chittenden 6-3
    Sam Young, Orleans Caledonia.
    Caroline Bright, Franklin Senate
    Justin Marsh, Lamoille 3
    Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Action VT PAC endorsed candidates in addition to Chris Pearson, Kesha Ram, Tim Ashe and Cassandra Gekas

  • In addition Kesha Ram, Chris Pearson, Tim Ashe and Cassandra Gekas, don’t forget Planned Parenthood of Northern New England VT PAC endrorse candidates Jill Krowinski (Chittenden 6-3), Justin Marsh (Lamoille 3), Sam Young (Orleans – Caledonia), and Caroline Bright (Franklin Senate).

  • Shunyata Webb

    Rep. 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…”

    Looks like she found an answer to her problem – being under the Dems tent in VT has payed off for Ms. Ram with such employment, in the form of a new CEDO post for the young woman.

    Whatever it takes.

  • It would be great if this sort of information could be updated in follow-up articles on the subject.

    Not being able to locate a page on the Vermont Legislative Website in regards to providing various statistics concerning members of the Vermont General Assembly, I was hoping someone could either point me in the direction of where the information might be found online or otherwise answer the following questions:

    1. What is the breakdown by gender of the Vermont House of Representatives as well as the state Senate?

    2. What are the top ten occupations, in terms of employment/career, held by state legislators?

    3. What is the average legislative pay members of the state legislature in Vermont are eligible to receive when serving during the legislative session?

    4. How much in terms of expenses are members of the state legislature in Vermont eligible to receive during the legislative session (e.g., meals, transportation or mileage and temporary housing)?

    5. How much are members of the state legislature eligible to receive, both in terms of pay as well as expenses, when serving on Summer study committees and the like?

    6. What is the amount of salary as well as expenses that certain legislative leaders are paid on an annual basis (e.g., Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate)?

    Thank you in advance.

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