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Local, state politicians getting younger

The trend is attributed to term limits and to California's image as a start-fresh place.

January 16, 2007|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

When 28-year-old Janet Nguyen was elected to the Garden Grove City Council in November 2004, she became the youngest elected official in Orange County.

But a little more than two years later, Nguyen, who is now running for a seat on the Board of Supervisors, has been eclipsed: In Santa Ana, newly elected Councilwoman Michele Martinez is 27, and in Buena Park, new school board member Jerry Kong is 26.

They are not alone.

In Los Angeles County, the average age on the Bell Gardens City Council is 32; the youngest member is Priscilla Flores, 28, and the oldest, Daniel Crespo, 38. In Lennox, school board members Veronica Renteria and Marisol Cruz are 27, and in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, Rafael Ramirez was elected in 2003 at 18. Alex Padilla, who was elected to the Los Angeles City Council at 26, is now the youngest member of the state Senate, at 33.

They and dozens of others are part of a trend playing out on school boards, water districts, city councils, the Legislature and beyond: Politicians are getting younger.

Although no one appears to have collected data documenting the youth movement, sociologists, political scientists and political pros agree it is taking place. They offer myriad explanations for the trend, including a generational power shift, the notion of California as a clean slate making it more hospitable to fresh leaders, and a renewed interest by young people in public service.

But all agree that term limits have played a significant role.

"Term limits have definitely opened it up," said Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party. He was elected to the Assembly in 1974 at 28 but says, "There wasn't then a whole group of young people like we see today."

The trend is particularly pronounced in areas where middle-class whites have been replaced by Latino and Asian immigrants, leaving a political power vacuum. Members of this new generation of young politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, are often the first in their families to grow up in the United States and to attend college. They are filling the void.

"In the southeast cities of Los Angeles [County], they're getting elected in a new demographic environment, which means it's a relatively new political environment," said Jaime Regelado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "You're getting a demographic shift that decades later is playing out politically," he said.

The influx of young politicians is not limited to immigrant communities. Newly elected members of the new Congress are nearly nine years younger than the members they succeeded.

In California, a younger set of politicians first became noticeable in the 2002 election, when a handful of candidates in their late 20s and early 30s was elected to the Assembly. Among them was Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando), who at 28 was the youngest woman ever elected to the lower house.

In many cases, these newcomers follow a well-worn path to public office, learning about politics and public policy while working on lawmakers' staffs. But although a political aide once might have waited years for the boss to get out of the way, state term limits, which were passed by voters in 1990 and over the last decade have swept away nearly all longtime lawmakers, have created more vacancies quicker than ever before.

Padilla (D-Van Nuys) is among the best-known examples. The son of Mexican immigrants, he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and returned to Pacoima. After a brief career in engineering, he worked on campaigns and then joined the staffs of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and then-Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Arleta) before winning election to the Los Angeles City Council in 1999. He was elected to the state Senate in November.

"I don't think you would have seen my kind of trajectory 25 or 30 years ago," Padilla said. "Politics were different back then."

Nguyen started at UC Irvine as a biology major but was bitten by the political bug after taking a community politics class from William G. Steiner, then chairman of Orange County's Board of Supervisors. She became so enamored of the subject that she became Steiner's intern and changed her major to political science. She worked for then-Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove) for four years before running for office herself. She is now a contender in a field of 10 candidates running for the Board of Supervisors.

Kong turned 26 a month before he was elected to the Buena Park School District board. Not long after graduating from UC Davis, he went to work as a field representative for then-Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk). He began attending Buena Park school board meetings as part of his duties, and when a vacancy occurred, district officials encouraged him to run. In a city with a fast-growing Korean American population, there was so little interest in the job from community elders and peers that he ran unopposed.

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