Council debates lower age for office

Under amendment, 18-year-olds would be eligible to run the city

May 26, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

At 41, Mayor Martin O'Malley is one of the youngest big-city mayors in America. But he's an old fogy compared to the whippersnappers pushing a city charter amendment, which would allow someone less than half O'Malley's age to run Baltimore.

A group called the Baltimore City Young Democrats wants to lower the minimum age for mayor and City Council members to 18, from 25 and 21, respectively. The plan, which would have to be approved by voters, will be debated at a council hearing tonight.

"Sometimes when you get older, you get a little jaded in your thinking," said Charline Gilbert, president of the group. "And young people tend to be a little more idealistic. I remember I was."

She is 33.

Gilbert's day job makes her an unlikely advocate for ousting the oldsters from City Hall; she is O'Malley's senior office assistant.

But Gilbert isn't saying that her boss is too old for the job - just that someone born during the second Reagan administration isn't necessarily too young for it.

O'Malley - one of the youngest mayors in Baltimore history in December 1999, when he took office one month shy of his 37th birthday - has no problem with 18-year-old council members, his spokeswoman said. But he thinks 25 is young enough for mayor.

"Your chief executive should be a little bit older," said spokeswoman Raquel Guillory, noting that the president of the United States has to be 35, compared with age 30 for senators and 25 for members of the House of Representatives.

At tonight's hearing, which begins at 5 in council chambers, the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee will consider a bill that calls only for lowering the age of council members. But some council members want to amend that bill, proposed by Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, to make the same minimum age apply to the mayor, council president and comptroller.

"I think it ought to be 18 across the board," said Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., 36, who was first elected at age 28.

If the bill gets out of committee and is approved by the full council, the question would be put to voters in the November election.

People who support the lower age, whether for the council alone or all elected officials, are invoking the price being paid by young soldiers in Iraq - echoing the arguments made in the Vietnam era, when the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1971, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.

"We've got 18-year-olds who are going over and are coming back either wounded, maimed or in some instances dead, serving our country in Iraq," Mitchell said. "If you're 18, why can't you help formulate laws for the city?"

If teens are allowed to run for city offices, that would set Baltimore apart from surrounding counties. Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties set a minimum age of 25 years for council members. The same goes for executives in those counties, except for Howard, where the executive must be at least 30.

But around the state, most jurisdictions require only that the candidate be of voting age, said Victor Tervala, a government consultant with the University of Maryland's Institute for Governmental Service.

Maryland law sets a minimum age of 30 for governor, 25 for state senators and 21 for delegates.

Even if the change is made in Baltimore, there is no guarantee that teenage candidates would emerge. Very few 16-year-olds took advantage of a quirk that allowed them to vote in the city's primary last fall.

Stukes is telling 18-year-olds, "I hope you don't let me down like the 16-year-olds did."

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