By JIM WORKMAN
The State Journal
Not long ago, Saira Blair became the youngest state lawmaker in the United States at age 18. A few years later, she may be in a position to pass on her wisdom and experience to fellow members of the West Virginia House of Delegates.
At least one new delegate, Josh Higginbotham, R-Putnam, 20, is younger than Blair, R-Berkeley, by a few weeks. Other House freshmen include 23-year-old Patrick Martin, R-Lewis, and 22-year-old Ben Queen, R-Harrison.
Higginbotham said he looks forward to working with the others.
“I’ll ask her for advice,” Higginbotham said. “And I’ll ask Kayla Kessinger and definitely leadership. Leadership has been very supportive of me during the campaign. There will be plenty of delegates of all ages that I can shadow and learn from.”
Kessinger, R-Fayette, is 26 years old and starting her second term in the House.
Queen and Blair are already familiar with each other — they had a class together while attending West Virginia University.
Blair is a junior at WVU majoring in economics and Spanish. Queen will graduate from WVU with a business management degree this summer. He has one more online class to complete his studies.
He turns 22 one day before the session begins.
“I’ll ask (Blair) for some advice,” Queen said. “I think if we all work together, we can accomplish some good things.”
Seeing more young people involved in politics is inspiring, Blair said.
“Especially seeing the involvement on campus — not people wanting to run for office, but just more people paying attention (to politics),” she said. “They understand what’s going on. It’s great to see more young people active — for national, statewide and local offices. It’s been phenomenal.”
While ultra-young lawmakers seem to be trending in the Mountain State, they are in select company nationally.
Of the more than 7,300 state legislators in the nation, fewer than 5 percent are 30 years old or younger, according to 2015 data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
That number goes down significantly when the age range is lowered to 21-25.
In West Virginia, the average age of a state legislator in 2015 was 54 — 56 for senators, 53 for delegates — according to NCSL.
Former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin knows all about balancing textbooks and a state budget. He was still a senior at WVU when he decided on a career in politics.
“I was graduating college, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said, only half-joking. “I went home for Christmas break, and I had been thinking about it, so I asked my parents.
“I said I was thinking about running for the House of Delegates. Their eyes got really wide.”
Still, Tomblin ran and won. Only 22 years old when he took office, he was one of the youngest members ever elected to the House.
“Larry Swann was elected two years before me,” Tomblin said. “His birthday is in February, and mine was in March.”
Tomblin did a lot of watching and listening until he figured out the ins and outs of the Legislature.
“Don’t be too mouthy your first couple of years,” he advises young lawmakers. “I did more observation the first couple of years than anything else.
“You’ve got to figure out who you can depend on and who’ll give you a square answer if you ask a question.”
Fledgling lawmakers also should find out what their constituents want.
But it’s also important to build alliances.
“It’s very important to build relationships in the Legislature if you want to get bills passed,” Tomblin said.
The current influx of young GOP lawmakers just goes along with the demographics of the state, said Conrad Lucas, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party.
“We’re a state where the younger you are, the more likely you’ll be a Republican,” he said. “It’s aligned with our voter registration records.”
Lucas said there’s no particular candidate archetype when it comes to candidate recruitment.
“We look for folks who are conservative, have the requirements necessary to win a campaign and serve the state effectively.
“We look for (candidates) of all ages who have been successful in their endeavors.”
Kessinger is still a relatively new lawmaker, but already she has reached leadership status, serving as vice chairman of the Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse for the upcoming session.
“The long-term outlook looks bright with the younger generation coming up,” Lucas said.
Higginbotham was accomplished, even as a student. As a senior at Poca High School, he was state president of DECA, or Distributive Education Clubs of America.
Higginbotham authored three books by the time he was 18 years old, his most recent titled “Ecclesiastes.”
Leaders in the Republican Party and the local community took notice of his early work, Higginbotham said.
“They told me that I needed to stop writing about politics and I needed to take the plunge,” he said. “So that’s what I did.”
Balancing his school work at the University of Charleston hasn’t been easy, Higginbotham said.
He is a dual major in history and political science and will receive internship class credits for spring semester while serving as a delegate.
Higginbotham not only is on schedule for graduation, but he also may walk a year early.
Never one to stand still, he got through his first campaign season with the help of his family and about 30 volunteers.
To say they left it all on the field would be an understatement, Higginbotham said.
“We went to every event,” he said. “We spoke at churches. We visited elementary, middle and high schools, talking to young people. We asked them what their concerns are.”
After knocking on 7,000 doors and sending out 6,000 handwritten letters — it paid off.
“My family was there to support me, and the volunteers who went out and helped me, going door-to-door and helped me write letters and make phone calls,” he said. “It was very humbling to see everyone come together to try to make a difference.”
Engaging young people became a staple of his campaign, Higginbotham said.
“I want to take their ideas and bring it to the Legislature,” he said. “I learned what their concerns were, and I think they took note of that.”
Blair hesitates to call politics her long-term goal.
“I’m not a fan of career politicians,” she said. “That’s part of the problem in how our government works now. It’s important to have experience in the private sector so you have something to bring to the table once you begin to serve.”
Her father, Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, spent six years in the House of Delegates and is starting his second term in the state Senate.
Her original plan was to become a financial analyst, but she said she’s not sure what post-graduate life looks like now.
She agreed one can never say “never.”
“Five years ago, I would have never seen myself in this situation,” she said. “It wasn’t one of my intended goals while attending college. It’s really hard for me to say anything about five years in the future because things change so rapidly.”
Higginbotham said he remains unsure about his long-term political future.
“But right now, my priority is focusing on rebuilding West Virginia’s economy,” he said. “Rebuilding our schools from the ground up. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We need to have the leadership that is willing to take on those challenges.”
Queen also said he doesn’t plan to be a delegate “forever,” but wants to make an impact while he can.
“I think Bridgeport is one of the best communities in the state,” he said. “If we can copy and paste Bridgeport to other parts of the state, that’s a good way to start this process going forward.
“I want to call West Virginia home,” Queen added. “I could move to a bigger city out of state and have a pretty good career as a photographer, but I don’t want to do that. I want to be here.”
The perspective the youngest generation brings to the Legislature may serve the state well going forward.
“We need better internet reliability in West Virginia,” Higginbotham said. “We need to look at trying to help our coal and natural gas industries.”
Higginbotham sees improvements in education that could be implemented. It’s time to teach the metric system in West Virginia, he said.
“We live in a 21st-century world,” Higginbotham said. “We can’t seclude ourselves as an isolated nation anymore. The rest of the world uses the metric system. We will continue to fall behind if we don’t switch.
Funding for career and technical education is a topic of great interest, he said.
“I think every student deserves the opportunity to go to college,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s necessary. We don’t need 100,000 new lawyers every year — our economy can’t handle it. I’d like to see us try to re-invigorate the trades. There are tens of thousands of open welding positions in this country, but we don’t have the (trained) people to fill them.”
Higginbotham said he remains hopeful for the future of the state.
“I feel that we have a team dedicated to make West Virginia great again,” he said. “I think the new team will really make a difference.”
Queen said he’s concerned that West Virginia is the only state in the union losing population.
“It’s our young people who are leaving — the 18- to 35-year-old group,” he said. “I want to represent them. I want my friends to come back to Harrison County to live.
“There’s an opportunity here to really turn the state around. There’s a lot of potential here. I want to make decisions in Charleston for the future of West Virginia to get the state moving forward again.”
As a young entrepreneur — in fact, as a teenager — Queen enjoyed quick success.
In 2008, he won a national photo contest sponsored by Canon and the Pro-Football Hall of Fame. He has photographed a Super Bowl, the Orange Bowl and the NCAA Final Four.
His photos have been published by many newspapers in the state, and he is a frequent contributor to USA Today.
As a student at Bridgeport High School, Queen was a national finalist for the “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” award given by the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
Queen, a 48th District delegate, said the House could benefit from his perspective as a young entrepreneur.
“We have to encourage entrepreneurs and help them as much as possible,” he said. “We need to diversify our economy, and they can help provide jobs. I think (entrepreneurs) can help us get this state turned around.
“Hopefully, we can all work together to keep our college graduates here,” he added. “I’m just one of 134 state legislators, but I know that I can be a part of something really neat in West Virginia.”
Queen is the fourth generation of his family to be elected to office.
His father, Mike Queen, served in the House of Delegates from 1988 to 1990 and was a member and president of the Harrison County Board of Education from 2006-2014. Mike Queen currently works as deputy chief of staff for external affairs and director of communications for Secretary of State Mac Warner.
Ben Queen’s grandfather, Fray Queen, was an elected constable from 1968 to 1976 and magistrate from 1976 to 1996 in Harrison County.
Ruby Queen Keister, Ben Queen’s great-great aunt, was the first woman elected to the Harrison County Commission.
While he will draw from his family connections, Ben Queen intends to be his own man.
“I’ll take what they’ve taught me and go my own direction,” he said, adding his perspective may differ from previous generations because of technology and progress.
“When you grow up in a political family, that’s what you talk about,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been a family tradition to help people. My goal is to employ and help as many people as possible.”
Making a Mark
In her two years as a legislator, Blair has received national attention as a potential lawmaker to watch.
But she takes it in stride, still hanging on to her initial goal of a career in finance after college. She said she is keeping her options open, politically and professionally.
But while she is in Charleston, Blair said she fully intends to make the most of it.
“I’m optimistic about the future,” she said. “There are some things I get upset by, but I realize that I am the future of West Virginia. I have the opportunity to persuade my peers, that we need to make the difference.”
Her first term in the House proved educational.
“The biggest surprise for me was that government is a very slow process,” she said. “I thought it would be fast and simple. But it’s slow for a good reason. There are a lot of small issues with bills that need attention.”
There’s much to be proud of, Blair said.
“The fact that we’ve had a very bipartisan Legislature the past two years, more so than we’ve ever seen in the history of West Virginia,” is one point of pride, Blair said. “There’s been a lot of work between the Democrats and the Republicans. From my generation’s perspective, we grew up in a very polarized time where we saw Democrats and Republicans not being able to work together. There was such a divide.
“So, it’s been very uplifting from my point of view to be able to share with my peers,” she added. “I tell them, ‘It’s not that way at the state level anymore. People are able to cooperate and work together very well now.’”
See more from The State Journal