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Millennial lawmakers put a fresh face on West Virginia politics

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — More than 30 new faces joined the West Virginia House of Delegates this year and more than a few of them fit into the fastest growing generation in the country.

Millennials are growing in numbers at the Capitol and are pushing their more senior counterparts to think a little differently.

Millennials — people ages 18-34 — make up about 25 percent of the country’s population. But the National Conference of State Legislatures reports the age group only makes up about 5 percent of the representatives in state legislatures.

At the age of 20, Delegate Josh Higgenbotham is one of the youngest members of West Virginia’s Legislature, where he said things are starting to change.

“All the young people in this hallway here, in this chamber, each and every one of us are passionate about what we do and love helping people,” Higgenbotham said. “That is why we kept getting elected and why we continue to grow and strengthen our numbers here in Charleston.”

During the 2016 election, West Virginia saw a drastic increase in its millennial representation. Now 13, percent of the state’s legislative body is made up of members of the young age group.

Many of these legislators said they jumped into public service to share fresh ideas and fresh perspectives that range, in terms of policy, from water innovation to broadband internet expansion to job creation. But according to 20-year-old Delegate Saira Blair, what they have in common is a desire to see party lines dissolve to create a better West Virginia.

“We have watched so much gridlock and hatred coming out of Washington, D.C. that we just don’t want any part of that, and we automatically associate it with liberal or conservative, when in reality most of us millennials and those below us are moderate,” Blair said.

A caucus of millennial legislators developed in the beginning weeks of the session, which began Feb. 8 Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, 31, is one of the members who headed up the group, and he said the goal is to promote bipartisan ideals.

“It’s going to be completely nonpartisan issues, more of just a think tank,” Hornbuckle said. “We want to think about how we not only push the state forward, but also how do we make sure — whether in government or just involved in your communities — get more younger folks to the table to help aid in that effort.”

So what has caused the spike in millennial representation in West Virginia? Some suggest it’s the frustration over political polarization. Some say it’s the recent presidential election, but each of these young legislators mentioned something else that’s driving them — something much more personal. These millennial lawmakers talk about the thing that drives them the most — watching their friends and families leave.

Delegate John Williams, 26, said, “We care and we are seeing our friends leave this state. My childhood best friends, they are both gone.”

Delegate Zack Maynard, 24, said, “We see a lot of influx of kids leaving. I’ve graduated with kids from college, high school that have left the state.”

“We’ve watched our friends and our family leave the state because there just aren’t opportunitites here for them,” Blair added

“It’s no mystery in West Virginia, I think we lead the country in exodus, in people leaving,” Hornbuckle said. “So if we are to reverse that trend, we have to capture young people and make them want to stay.”

Maynard said lawmakers should be focused on finding ways to keep young West Virginians like himself in the state, and he and his fellow millennial legislators are equipped to do just that.

“If we can’t build a base around what our kids want or moving this state forward, we are going to lose a generation,”Maynard said.

Of the 17 millennial lawmakers in the House of Delegates this year, nine are first-term members and eight are returning. In the Senate, Majority Leader Ryan Ferns is the only millennial member.

Godby is a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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