Young and politically committed Twentysomethings buck apathy trend

Campaign 1998

August 13, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

At the trendy Bethesda brewpub, it's happy hour. Music is blaring, and young office workers are kicking back with pints of ale. But something strange is going on:

Instead of pickup lines, they're talking politics -- handicapping the Maryland election.

Jostling elbows in the back booths, these twentysomethings are comparing their favorite politicos like bands at the Lilith Fair. They've even paid money for this opportunity, $25 apiece for the inaugural fund-raiser of Maryland Ahead, a new political committee trying to get Democrats their age into office.

"I can't wait to see how Montgomery County reacts to a younger candidate. There's a new guy running against an incumbent, I hear, and he's only 22," Jodi Finkelstein, 28, announces to the crowd at Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery.

No question about it, the young professionals and college students readily agree, they're a minority. They don't just watch C-SPAN, they follow local ballot questions. They don't just know their congressmen, they can name their state delegates.

Most of their generation can barely be bothered to vote. Not even a third of under-25 voters participated in the last presidential election, and surveys show far fewer are interested in state or local politics.

Hardly any local politicians even look like them. In Maryland, only three of the 188 members of the General Assembly are younger than 30 -- all Republicans. Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening is in his fifties, and his Republican challengers are older. The leading contender for state comptroller is William Donald Schaefer, a 76-year-old former governor.

None of the gubernatorial candidates has made a special effort to reach out to Generation X voters in this fall's elections. But at least a few young Marylanders care deeply about the outcome.

While they may share some of their generation's frustrations with mainstream politics, they see the opportunity to bring about social change. They make the connection between their concern about recycling or health insurance and the choice of a governor.

Several dozen college students, mostly self-confessed "political junkies," are giving up their summer vacations to work for little or no pay on the gubernatorial campaigns. Their motivations are as diverse as they are:

A senior at Salisbury State has political ambitions of his own. A business graduate of the University of Maryland wants to enhance her resume. A junior at North Carolina's Davidson College hopes to see a Republican elected governor in his home state of Maryland.

David Dashefsky, a freckled, earnest 1997 Yale graduate, is going a step further. He's the 22-year-old candidate for delegate in Montgomery County.

"I've become convinced that the whole HMO system isn't working, that women, seniors and even bachelors from Yale aren't getting good health care," Dashefsky says. He surprised himself by deciding "the simplest way to address the issue was to run, win or lose."

"I'm impressed," says Becky Rosenthal, 21, an old friend who bumps into him glad-handing at the microbrewery.

"Our age group is so non-political that it's good at least some of us are starting to be involved."

Cheerfully 'clueless'

Ever since the 1960 presidential election, voter turnout across the country has steadily eroded. But while the public in general is increasingly indifferent and mistrustful of government, surveys show the Generation X electorate is especially turned off.

"What's special about Gen Xers," says Kay Schlozman, a political scientist at Boston College who studies voting patterns, "is that they're entering the electorate at even lower levels than any of their predecessors."

Beyond presidential elections, she notes, the disinterest only widens. Property taxes matter less if you don't own a home. Public schools aren't as important if you don't have children.

Jason Howell is typical of twentysomethings who admit they're barely aware of Maryland's Sept. 15 primary, let alone the November general election.

At a Towson sporting goods store where he is assistant manager, Howell cheerfully describes himself as "clueless." Elections used to mean "a day off from school," but now he ignores them.

"To me, no matter who gets into office, the same things happen anyway," he says.

Selling camping gear beside Howell is David Leopold, 18. He has some opinions about the governor's race, but expects to sit out his first election. By fall, he'll be in college in Boston. And besides, he says, "I'm really more interested in the way people line up nationally."

His situation is common among college students. Many don't bother to change their registration, or to get absentee ballots. After graduation, they often lead such transient lives that they don't identify with state concerns.

"You know what I'm interested in? Not taxes." says Mike Leh, 24, a jazz musician from California who lives in Baltimore. "I'd like to see someone come up with a concrete plan to get more people to move back into Baltimore."

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