Montana Viewpoint
We need diversity in the make-up of state legislatures

May 15, 2006

During my first campaign for a seat in the Montana House of Representatives a lady indicated she wouldn’t vote for me because I didn’t have enough “experience,” but she did allow that I would get it as I grew older. I was 43 at the time.

I guess the age at which we consider people become “mature” is when they are about our age or older. That’s generally a mistake, but I’m sure it makes us feel better about our own maturity.

One of the unique facets of rural Montana life is the interaction of people of all ages at social events and in daily life. Because of this, I think Montanans are more knowledgeable about the issues and concerns people of different ages face.

Contrast that with more urban states where people bunch up like a band of sheep with others of their own age.

This social intermingling of people of all ages is not reflected in elective office, and I believe that there is a pressing need for a more diverse representation of age groups in government in general and the Montana Legislature in particular. (There’s a need for more women, too, but that’s a whole ’nuther article.)

The age group least represented in state governments today is that of America’s young. Out of over 7000 state legislatures less than 400 are under 30 years old.

This year there at least six candidates for the Montana House who are under twenty-five, and I think that’s healthy as all get out. Two of them are running for re-election, and the other four for the first time.

I would guess that the greatest concern that some older folks would have about them is that they won’t be taken seriously, but that’s just not the case; the young legislators already in office command a lot of respect. They are inquisitive and open minded. Their opinions have not solidified into impregnable and unchangeable granite. They want to know both sides of a story before making a decision.

There is a certain maturity in young people who run for elective office. A campaign is not a fun time, and writing laws is serious business. Anyone wanting to put themselves in that public a position has thought it out and has ideals that they want to put to work.

Once in office they are constantly aware that, because of their youth, their performance is constantly under the scrutiny of their elders and that they have to earn their reputation as effective lawmakers.

If young people don’t take part in the political process, their lives will be shaped by the decisions of middle-aged people with an imperfect memory of what it is to be young. They are saddled with paying a burgeoning national debt created by feckless politicians who spend money we do not have on programs we do not need.

If I were going to recommend a flippant campaign slogan to young candidates it would be, “let us screw up our own future.”

Those of us who are old enough can look back at our mistakes and only regret them, but those who are young can look at our mistakes and avoid them.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620