Election 2016 is old news, but it is one of the factors motivating young people to run for office in 2018. Millennial politicians are poised to take power in potentially record numbers. That's according to organizations dedicated to fielding young, first-time candidates. Locally, we're seeing millennials running for office, but for a few different reasons.
Party lines and 347 miles separate Jeff Hayward and Jessica Olson. Hayward is a Democrat who lives in Sioux Falls. Olson is a Republican who calls Rapid City home. Both are linked by a few common factors. One, they are millennials in their thirties. Two, they're both filing petitions to run for the South Dakota legislature.
"I've always been interested in politics," Olson said.
Olson is the CEO of Wellfully, an organization that helps homeless, abused, or neglected youth. She says her work experience, family, and background in business are encouraging her to go for a seat in the House of Representatives.
"My focus on workforce development and fiscal leadership. I think I'm ready to lend this experience in this new role to my neighbors in District 34," Olson said.
Hayward is a small business owner, and works for South Dakota Job Corps. For that job, he helps provide career and job training to low income youth. His journey to the House starts with a desire to make government more accessible to everyday voters who feel like nobody is listening to them.
"There's this feeling we want to see change and if we want to see that, the best thing we can do is be a part of that," Hayward said.
Both say it is important for young voters to become young leaders.
"Historically we've had a state legislature that's been made up of just a couple of different demographics and not really a full representation of South Dakota. So, I think it's important we have that," Hayward said.
"Diversity of perspectives is very important. We know we make better decisions when we have a diverse group working on an issue. Our legislature in the state certainly needs that as well," Olson said.
This political engagement and desire to work for change is exactly what LEAD South Dakota wants to see from millennials, a generation that tends to be stereotyped as unengaged and frivolous.
"I think it's possible to really enjoy avocado toast and also care about your city government," co-founder of LEAD South Dakota, Carmen Toft said.
LEAD, or Leaders Engaged And Determined, started two years ago as a way to involve more women in the political process. Now, the organization also connects young voters to candidates and helps them run for office in the state.
"People, instead of trying to make it better, end up leaving. If that's something you're like, 'no, I want to stay here. I want the state to be representative of me and my family and my people; then I'm going to get involved and do something," Toft said.
That's a big trend nationwide right now. Though exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, Run for Something has recruited more than 15,000 young democratic candidates. The press secretary for the Young Republican National Federation says more young Republicans are running for office, partially due to President Trump's successful campaign last year.
Toft, a member of Generation X, says we need a variety of ages, genders, races and backgrounds in the legislature. When it comes to young politicians, she says they may be closer to certain issues than other generations.
"You know more about the economy, because you have a student debt bill that is not congruous to with what you're making for your paycheck and to what the taxes you're paying are. These are every day issues that are important to you," Toft said.
Voters will ultimately decide who represents South Dakota. No matter what happens, Olson and Hayward hope their campaigns inspire others in some way.
"The nature of politics today can be very intimidating and if we get back to the idea of public service, not politics, we can maybe foster that," Olson said.
"Just a small good deed of holding the door open for somebody. I just think this interest and engaging and doing good is a positive thing and I'm excited to be a part of that," Hayward said.
Let's look at it this way. As a nation, it may feel like we are miles apart, both in geography and political theory. However, in many cases, a desire to make things better for our communities shows we're closer to common ground than we think.
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