Young politicians are a hot commodity in Connecticut this year.
After a series of Republican wins at the municipal level in November, West Hartford Democratic Town Committee member Kiernan Majerus-Collins published an op-ed in CT News Junkie urging state Democrats to recruit more young leaders to hold office. He wrote that it is important for Democrats to garner support from younger voters because the Republican Party has already ramped up its efforts to gain their vote in the state. His request seems to have taken hold with 27-year-old Westville Alder Darryl Brackeen Jr., who announced Tuesday that he has been named Connecticut state director of the Young Elected Officials Network, a nonpartisan program that supports progressive local, state and national leaders aged 35 and under. In his new position, he will connect young elected officials to resources for professional development and policy assistance.
“There are many challenges that we are facing across the state,” Brackeen said. “It certainly won’t hurt to bring folks together in a collaborative way to find progressive solutions.”
Brackeen was first elected as Ward 26 alder in 2013 when he was just 25, becoming the ward’s youngest and first African-American alder. Though Brackeen — a YEO Network member since January 2014 — ran uncontested for his second term last month, other Democrats did not fare as well. In Trumbull, Democratic candidate for first selectman Vicki Tesoro failed to unseat the incumbent Republican Tim Herbst. On the same day, GOP New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart fended off Democratic challenger John McNamara.
Majerus-Collins, a student at Bates College, argued in his November op-ed that the wins of these two “young Republicans with a future” are proof that state Republicans recognize the value of these rising stars. Connecticut Republicans have also prioritized recruiting young voters, Majerus-Collins wrote.
Groups like the YEO Network allow young elected officials to work on issues of particular importance to younger generations, such as LGBT rights, environmental protection and criminal justice reform, Majerus-Collins told the News. He added that young voters have a distinct perspective from older voters in the electorate on such issues.
Experts and lawmakers interviewed identified student debt and college affordability as other key concerns for young lawmakers and their constituents on both sides of the aisle.
Republican Waterbury Alder Stephanie Cummings, who was elected to her first term in 2013 at age 26, said many young professionals are moving out of her city. As a working millennial, herself, she said, her experience makes her more attuned to the problems her constituents face. Cummings said this perspective allows her to come up with solutions that older officials might not consider.
“While I may not have [the life experiences of older officials], this is what I bring to the table,” Cummings said. “You don’t want the table to be full of the same, exact experiences.”
Former Ward 1 alder candidate Fish Stark ’17 said any legislative body, including local ones like the Board of Alders, requires a diversity of ages in order to work most effectively. Stark added that young people have historically catalyzed change in their political parties.
Stark, who received an endorsement from Brackeen in the Ward 1 race this fall, said the current Westville alder will lift the voices of young people in and around New Haven. Brackeen is interested in discussing student loans and the economy in a way that older officials are not, Stark said. As a community organizer for pro-charter school education nonprofit Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, Brackeen is suited to build a coalition of young leaders in his work for the YEO Network, Stark said.
For her part, Cummings has found a different support system through the Connecticut Young Republicans. The political organization bands her and other politicians — like state Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, the General Assembly’s youngest lawmaker at age 21 — into a network where they can collaborate and swap campaign strategy ideas, she said.
Gary Rose, chairman of the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University, said he is not sure if either party can effectively connect to young people in the state because they may not articulate the issues important to these voters.
But Rose also noted a handful of exceptions to the rule. For example, J.R. Romano, the Republicans’ new state party chairman, has been a dynamic force in reaching out to Connecticut’s student population, Rose said.
Connecticut Democrats have their up-and-comers as well, Majerus-Collins wrote in his November op-ed. Although Republican Ken Cockanye won the mayoral race in Bristol, voters also re-elected 23-year-old Democratic Councilor Calvin Brown. Majerus-Collins also named state senators like majority whip Mae Flexer and Gary Winfield of New Haven.
Both Democrats and Republicans must actively engage more young people to ensure that they enter politics, Rose said. Young municipal leaders can draw other young people into the process by serving as examples, he said.
“Younger people need to see people like first selectmen, town councilmen and mayors,” Rose said. “For people who have some questions about the political process, it allows them to [learn about] the process by studying the behavior, speeches and decisions of younger public office holders.”
Majerus-Collins and Rose both said that for many young people, the obstacle to running for political office is that they do not know how. Majerus-Collins added that he hopes groups like YEO Network could also minimize the logistical obstacles for aspiring young politicians and provide them with support through the campaign process.
Rose suggested that campus groups — like the Sacred Heart College Democrats and College Republicans — can also give young people a space to explore possible political careers.
Mentor figures can jump-start a political career as well, Cummings said. This is the case for her own life: After she took classes with Rose at Sacred Heart, he encouraged her to apply for an internship at the state capitol in Hartford. After graduating from law school, Cummings joined a financial board in Waterbury, before successfully running for alder.
“We need more Dr. Roses,” Cummings said.
In the last year and a half, a book drive Cummings organized has collected over 28,000 books for Waterbury children.