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Median age of Midwestern state legislators is slightly below national average; lawmakers span seven decades in age

by Kate Tormey ~ January 2013 ~ Stateline Midwest »
While the average legislator in this region is in his or her 50s, Midwestern state legislatures have many different generations of members working side-by-side.
Nationwide, the average age of a state legislator is 57, according to Adam Brown, a political researcher at Brigham Young University. In the Midwest, however, it was slightly lower in 2012: 54.
And the range of legislators’ ages, from 24 to 85, spans seven decades, according to state-by-state data collected last year by CSG Midwest. [Editor’s note: Data were not made available on ages of legislators in North Dakota, and ages were not available for some lawmakers in other states.
At age 24, Ohio Rep. Christina Hagan is one of the region’s youngest state legislators. But even before taking office, she had spent a lot of time in the Capitol watching her father, John, serve four terms in the House. She ran her first campaign at 19; she first took state office at age 22 as a college senior.
In the beginning, she says, her age spurred concerns among constituents and colleagues alike — and led to some “razzing” as well.
“It is a difficult task to walk into a room when everyone is doubting your ability,” she says. “But I have built relationships and a level of trust. I let [my colleagues] know I have a little bit of grit and I am willing to do my job.”
As for the “razzing,” she jokes that growing up with three brothers adequately prepared her for that.
Age an asset for oldest, youngest
Hagan is five years younger than Wisconsin Sen. Fred Risser was when he first joined the legislature. Risser, now 85, also came from a political family — he is a fourth-generation member of Wisconsin state government.
In the 56 years since he first took office, Risser has seen a lot of changes in his state and the legislature itself. Issues of critical importance today, such as the environment and consumer protection, weren’t even discussed in 1957, he says.
And the makeup of the legislature has changed dramatically as well.
“When I was first elected, the legislature was 100 percent white men — no women or minorities,” he recalls. “There were no women’s bathrooms on [our] floor. We didn’t even have female pages.”
Advances in technology, too, have changed the way legislators interact with one another and their constituents.
The fact that he can recall different eras in state government doesn’t just make for trivia. Risser believes it’s an asset as well.
“You learn from history,” Risser says. “You know the mistakes that have been made and if something has been tried before.”
He also points out that some movements and reform efforts take many years to be resolved, and it’s important to have longtime legislators in office to see them through.
Risser recalls, for example, that when he first took office smoking was permitted just about everywhere.
But as the years went on, concerns grew about the effects of secondhand smoke. Over the course of 20 years, Risser fought to pass an indoor smoking ban.
“It was a 180-degree turnaround, but it took a long time.”
Despite the advantages of experience, Risser says, it’s also important to have the voice of younger legislators, too.
Hagan agrees, saying that she brings a unique perspective to every decision the legislature makes.
“The policies we implement today will impact my generation the longest,” she says. “Instead of making short-sighted political decisions, I have to be conscious that my generation will bear the burden of any regulation we pass.

 

Capital Closeup is an ongoing series of articles done by CSG Midwest highlighting institutional issues in state government and legislatures.
Past articles are available here »