Legislators young and old talk generational politics and ageism
Aubrey Weaver is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.
Vermont lawmakers launched the cross-party Future Caucus with the Millennial Action Project, a group focused on encouraging younger people to pursue politics, in 2015 to unify lawmakers under 45 years old and encourage younger individuals to run for office. But in June of last year, only 24 of the 150 state legislators were under 45.
To figure out what this kind of age disparity looks like in the day-to-day of state politics in Vermont, Community News Service interviewed four state legislators to have a candid conversation about generational politics and perspective: Rep. Lucy Boyden, D-Cambridge, 22; Rep. Jay Hooper, D-Randolph, 29; Sen. Virginia Lyons, D-Chittenden, 78; and Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, 83.
Some of the contrasts between their life experiences are extreme: Boyden, the youngest legislator in the Statehouse, graduated high school in 2018 and is in her first session. Mazza graduated high school in 1957 — his hometown “Colchester didn’t have a high school back then so we had to go to Winooski, five to six miles a day and with no transportation” — and has been in the Legislature longer than almost anybody. He was elected first to the House in 1973 and served until his election to the Senate in 1985, where he has served ever since.
Some of them fall along similar lines of policy. Hooper and Lyons both said climate change is a legislative priority. Mazza said the legislature hasn’t tackled “a lot of big ones this year” but pointed to S.5, the clean heat bill, as one of the most significant pieces of legislation he’s seen in years: “S.5, that was the biggest one that we experienced in many years since back with gay marriage, but I think that’s been a giant one, these last three, four weeks, and because there were just thousands and thousands of phone calls and letters and everything you can think of voicing their concerns.”
Here’s what they said about age and generations in politics.
What are some difficulties you have noticed working with legislators of different generations?
“I have some really great relationships with those who are on the very much older spectrum and sometimes we joke around,” Boyden said. “I think we both find each other and our generations very valuable for the different perspectives. You know, a lot of them have a little more life experience than I do, and I find that really valuable, but then myself and others who are younger bring kind of a fresh perspective of kind of questioning the status quo.” Though, she said, some people in the Legislature “still haven’t made the transition to efficiently working with the new technology.”
Said Hooper: “Wow, where do I start? Basically, we’ve got these old-heads living in an old world and trying to apply sort of old thinking to a landscape that is changing faster… The problems that we’re facing in government are outpacing our capacity to understand those issues.” He gave an example: “If you have a chair of a committee who’s been there for 18 years, and they had a hand in creating the policy that we’ve learned is not as effective as it could be and should undergo some major changes, those lawmakers are not always the most helpful.”
Lyons said that “there are a number of folks who don’t understand that making policy and producing legislation is maybe a more gradual process than they would like. I think people and this is true — and doesn’t matter how old you are — there are some people who really would like to see change happen very rapidly. And my experience has been that change can happen rapidly but not if you try to bully it the way through.”
Relating that to her experience with people raised in the digital age, Lyons said, “There’s a tendency toward wanting to have instant gratification and wanting to know that the information that you get right away is the information you’re going to use — and to make very instant decisions. And that, in some ways, is in direct conflict with being human.”
Mazza raised concerns about younger legislators’ views on government spending: “The younger folks that are coming — which is great, it’s good to see young people get involved — but they’re far more progressive in many instances. And one of the things they just have to think about is every time you do something, how are you going to pay for it? That’s a big thing. I mean, we all love to do a lot of things for a lot of people. Especially now with all this federal money that came in. And now once that federal money is gone, how are you going to pay for some of these things that you spent it on?”
On ‘ageism’ in politics
“I think we have to reinforce there’s a need for respect that has to be in place at both sides,” Lyons said. “I see a lot of implicit bias against the folks who are older, and I think that’s really unfortunate.”
Boyden discussed her experience during her House campaign last year against Republican candidate Rebecca Pitre: “She published ads in the newspaper that targeted my age … (One said I was going) ‘from her parents’ house to the Statehouse.’” Boyden said she’s living with her parents “one, because I just recently graduated from college and two, we’re in a housing crisis.”
Should there be age minimums and maximums to hold public office?
“I’ve actually talked to Jay Hooper a little bit about this because we had an elections bill in our committee,” Boyden said. “You may have heard something similar from him, but I think there should be some type of minimum whether that’s 18 or even, like lower just to create legitimacy around our campaigns and, you know, establishing yourself and setting yourself up to be involved.”
When asked about age maximums for public office, she said she didn’t support something like that. “I think everybody has something to bring to the table, whether you’re old or young.”
Though, Boyden said, as a middle school legislative page she would notice some older legislators not performing at their best. “One thing that I was frustrated with was that there were some older members who would fall asleep on the floor or in committee. And then it’s like, okay, you’re here to represent your community and make decisions for your community, but you’re missing out on all this quality content.”
Hooper agreed with Boyden in opposing any age caps on legislators: “There are old people who are still really sharp. I think it’s really up to voters to understand when it’s time. I think the democratic process ought to dictate the tailend of that question.”
Lyons had one of the more open responses to the idea of age minimums: “If someone is mature enough to understand the policies and to communicate effectively and have a thoughtful approach to ideas, you know, I don’t think there is a lower limit.”
On the question of an age ceiling, she said, “Democracy is an open space, and we should allow people to communicate and to be part of the system. As long as we believe that they’re capable. Just because someone walks around and who’s a little bit older doesn’t disqualify them.”
Mazza too thought the voters should be left to decide whether a candidate or legislator is too old to serve at their best: “I’ve always believed in this, the voters’ choice. I mean, they make a decision whether anyone stays or not. If they feel the person is too old and not capable of doing it … the voters will make that decision.”
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