Surge of young, progressive Mainers seek local office

Surge of young, progressive Mainers seek local office

When I decided to take the plunge as a not-quite 25 year-old and run for Auburn City Council this year, it occurred to me that something a bit strange is happening right now in the Oldest State in the Nation. Despite a chart-topping 43.5-year median age, Maine cities right now are seeing a surge in young people, and particularly young progressives, running for local office.

I’m not just talking about Portland, which often sees young people run for municipal office. Lewiston alone has four candidates under 35 this year, including 30-year-old Ben Chin, a mayoral candidate (and political director for the Maine People’s Alliance), 26-year-old dietitian Kristine Kittridge, and 26-year-old legislative aide Isobel Moiles.

Isobel Moiles, Lewiston City Council candidate

Isobel Moiles, Lewiston City Council candidate

Of the seven candidates fighting for three open seats in the Bangor city council race this year, two of them, 25-year-old Sarah Nichols, a development coordinator for St. Joseph’s Hospital, and 31-year-old Meg Shorette, who founded and runs the business incubator Launchpad, are also under 35.

This surge is all the more surprising, given that the national average age of a state legislator is nearly 60, and that the punditry takes as a foregone conclusion that young people have little to no interest in running for office these days.

It’s not just the ages of those running, either. Lewiston candidates Kristine Kittridge and Ben Chin have both taken strong and largely unprecedented public stances against the corporate slumlords who have been ruining the lives of low-income tenants and ravaging Lewiston’s housing stock, and Bangor city council candidate Sarah Nichols has been running a campaign built around new ideas to strengthen public transit and education. In short, young candidates such as these are shaping the narrative of this election cycle and putting forward bold, progressive campaigns too seldom seen in local politics.

So what’s going on here?

Ben Chin, Lewiston Mayoral candidate

Ben Chin, Lewiston Mayoral candidate

To explain this increase in youth participation in Maine politics, I believe that one must first dispel the myth of inherent millennial political apathy. With a political system that is gaining more and more barriers to entry as the power of corporate influence in elections continues to grow, many of my generation– one of the most indebted in our history– fundamentally lack the resources necessary to run for office.

In this way, Maine stands out as one of the few remaining places in this country where the financial barriers to run remain relatively low. Maine in fact stands as a national leader in pushing for more robust public financing of elections, which if successful could additionally lower this financial hurdle to run.

Perhaps even more fundamentally, the decision to run for office can be seen as a function of empowerment: people do not run for office when they do not feel that they have the knowledge, tools and support structures needed to win. Without active efforts to draft and train potential candidates, many feel that running for office is simply something that someone else is supposed to do. With growing networks of training and support from such groups as the female-oriented Emerge Maine or the newly re-chartered Maine Young Democrats, more and more young people gaining the skills and confidence to enter the political process. It is no coincidence that many of this year’s roster of young candidates comes from either or both of these groups.

As Maine continues to come to terms with its growing demographic crisis of an aging population, integrating the needs and voices of young Mainers into the political process is going to become increasingly important. To accomplish that, we must continue to lower the financial and social barriers to run while we continue to raise more ladders for young people to climb into the civic space. With any luck (and a lot more work), this off-year oddity could flourish into a fully-fledged trend.

Photos via candidate websites. Top: Sarah Nichols, Bangor City Council candidate

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 31 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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