young lawmakers david morales rhode island

“What ultimately made my decision to run was the support I was receiving from a lot of friends and fellow community activists,” says David Morales, the nation’s youngest Latino legislator.

Ready for the World: 8 of the Nation’s Youngest State Lawmakers

By Kelley Griffin | Oct. 3, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

The nation’s youngest state legislators set their sights early. One was volunteering for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley at age 11; another campaigned for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at 13. None of them were even out of college when they got elected. And each is motivated by different issues: health care, education, economic equality, gun rights, taxes, the environment.

Surrounded by colleagues old enough to be their parents, even grandparents, they’ve heard many comments about their youth—mostly skeptical. “I affectionately joke that if I had a nickel for every time someone makes a comment about my age, everyone in my district would be comfortably retired,” Montana Rep. Braxton Mitchell says.

A lot of people say that young people are the future. But in reality, we’re the now. —West Virginia Del. Caleb Hanna

New Hampshire Rep. Tony Labranche says people decided his youth disqualified him without even knowing him. He turned 19 just after he was elected in 2020. “One of my opponents even said on Election Day that, in her eyes, I was a 9-year-old boy,” Labranche says.

Rhode Island Rep. David Morales, who at 21 is the nation’s youngest Latino state legislator, says when he campaigned, people assumed he was a volunteer. But he had already completed his undergraduate studies and earned a master’s degree in public policy from Brown University by the time he ran. The knowledge he brought to his conversations with voters convinced people he was serious. He says the skeptics can be won over.

“You can quickly change that perception by feeling passionate about your ideas and presenting them unapologetically with the facts and with the evidence,” Morales says.

Youth Can Be a Plus

Sen. Will Haskell of Connecticut—the youngest senator in a U.S. legislature—ran at age 22 and replaced a representative who had been in office since before Haskell was born. He wanted to see new policies and heeded the call when he heard President Barack Obama say, “If you’re disappointed in your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.”

Haskell says he knew he lacked life experience but adds, “No legislator can know everything about every issue, so it’s on all of us to listen and learn.”

A couple of legislators consider their youth a plus.

Iowa Rep. Carter Nordman admits there was some concern about his age: He was 22 when he ran. “But by far, while I was (knocking on) doors around my district, I heard, ‘I love seeing young people running and getting involved,’” he says.

And Rep. Kalen Haywood of Wisconsin, who was elected at 19 in 2018, says every age group brings something to the table.

“We need to take the energy and innovativeness of young people and marry that “with the wisdom of our elders,” he says.

Like many young legislators, North Dakota Rep. Claire Cory wants to see more of her peers joining the ranks. So she’s working with a group offering support to hundreds of young people who say they want to run, including personally mentoring an 18-year-old Montana woman.

The nation’s youngest Black state legislator, West Virginia Del. Caleb Hanna, was elected three years ago at age 19. He was inspired by Obama, but with a father who got laid off from a coal mine a few years back, Hanna decided he aligns with Republicans. He’s never been daunted by seeking office at a young age.

“A lot of people say that young people are the future,” Hanna says. “But in reality, we’re the now.”

Read on to learn more about these legislative up-and-comers.

claire cory north dakota
Cory

Rep. Claire Cory

Youngest woman ever elected to her state’s Legislature

  • R-North Dakota
  • Born: Sept. 11, 1998
  • Elected: November 2020; appointed in October 2019 to fill out a term
Was it a hard decision to run at such a young age?

It was not. The district I represent and grew up in encompasses the University of North Dakota, where I go to school. I knew it would be a perfect fit. Legislating is something I am passionate about, so I knew it was the right time in my life.

How does being a legislator shape what you see for your future?

I hadn’t been thinking about my career past graduation when I was first appointed at 21. It’s inspiring to be exposed to all of the different career paths my colleagues have chosen. Some jobs will fit better with being in the Legislature by having more freedom to leave every other year for four months. I would love to be a business owner and entrepreneur.

What advice do you have for other young people?

Run for office! Young people are watching what is happening to their country, and they are worried. I'm part of an organization called Run GenZ, which mentors young conservative candidates to run for public office. They have more than 300 people who have applied for help. I am currently mentoring an 18-year-old woman seeking a state House seat in Montana.

caleb hanna wv
Hanna

Del. Caleb Hanna

Youngest Black state legislator in U.S. history

  • R-West Virginia
  • Born: Oct. 29, 1999
  • Elected: November 2018
What got you interested in serving in an elective office?

I didn’t come from a political family at all. I remember being in third grade and seeing Barack Obama running for president and thinking, “If he can do it, I can do it.” So he initially sparked my interest in politics and policy. However, coming from a coal state, it didn’t take me long to see that President Obama and I didn’t see eye to eye on many issues. My dad was a coal miner and got laid off when I was 13 years old, due to some harsh energy policies. I knew at that point I wanted to run and be involved one day.

What has surprised you about being a state legislator?

It’s hard to explain what expectations had when realizing I won my first election, but it was definitely much different when I stepped into the Capitol. Every single day is a new experience, and as soon as you think you’ve got a grasp on something, you get thrown a curveball. While some people look at some legislatures and certain issues as being complete chaos, it’s just them being deliberative. We don’t all get our way, but we make compromise and effective policy. Looking at the grand scheme of things. It’s not particularly bad that we debate and bicker so much.

How does being a legislator shape what you see for your future?

Politics definitely has changed my plans and opened my eyes to new areas of interest. From middle school all the way to my first year of college, I thought I wanted to attend law school and study some type of corporate law. The Legislature showed me that there were other things that I was more passionate about, examples being education and health care.

will haskell ct
Haskell

Sen. Will Haskell

Youngest senator in a U.S. legislature

  • D-Connecticut
  • Born: June 28, 1996
  • Elected: November 2018
What got you interested in serving in elective office?

In 2007, my dad brought me to New Hampshire to watch the presidential primary process. Seeing democracy up close sparked my interest in politics, and I hoped that I might have the chance to run for office one day in the distant future. After President Trump’s victory, I decided to bump up my timeline. I was frustrated that my state senator had been serving for longer than I had been alive and was concerned that no one was running against her. I felt the problems that my community faced were urgent, but I wasn’t sure exactly what to do about it. Then I heard President Obama’s farewell address. in which he said, ”If you’re disappointed in your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.” I took him up on it, and a few months later he endorsed my campaign.

What advice do you live by?

The best advice I received came from my friend state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg: First, politicians need to stand for something, not just against something. It’s easy for candidates to motivate their base by opposing various policies. The harder—but more valuable—responsibility of a candidate is to articulate what they support. I think the best politicians also offer solutions to those problems, leaving voters feeling inspired instead of angry. Second, the right decision and the popular decision are not always one and the same. Sometimes, elected officials need to make unpopular decisions.

What has surprised you about being a state legislator?

As I came to better understand my job as a state senator, I realized how accessible state and local policymakers really are. My constituents can typically reach me on my cellphone, and conversations with constituents can make all the difference in getting a bill across the finish line.

kalen haywood wisconsin
Haywood

Rep. Kalan Haywood

  • D-Wisconsin
  • Born: June 5, 1999
  • Elected: November 2018
Why did you decide to run for office at such a young age?

When it comes to tackling community issues. I believe it has to be an all-hands­on-deck effort. Also, as a young person, the laws that are being voted on and passed in the Legislature today will be laws that my peers and I will have to live with for decades to come. It is important that we have diverse voices at the table when discussing legislative change to ensure the policy has the greatest impact.

How do you respond when people question whether you could do the job at your age?

I have always felt that my age has been my biggest asset. We need to take the energy and innovativeness of young people and marry that with the wisdom of our elders.

How does being a legislator shape what you see for your future?

Serving as a legislator has allowed me to see firsthand the positive impact government can have. I look forward to continuing to play an active role in bettering the world around me.

labranche tony nh
Labranche

Rep. Tony Labranche

Nation’s youngest LGBTQ+ state legislator

  • I-New Hampshire
  • Born: Nov. 11, 2001
  • Elected: November 2020
What got you interested in serving in elective office?

At the age of 10, I was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. To see the ways this cost my family was shocking. I think that my total care has racked up to well over $1 million. My family and I were charged over $1,000 in Tylenol alone during my stay, when a bottle of Tylenol across the street at CVS was $6.99. Dealing with cancer was already hard enough, but knowing someone was profiting off my suffering only made it more painful. Ever since then, I have made it my life mission to make the world we live in a better and more equitable place for all.

Did people question whether you could do the job because you were young?

Many people questioned my ability and competence at being an elected official, many of them not knowing anything other than I was 18 and a Democrat. (Labranche changed his party affiliation in January.)

How does being a legislator shape what you see for your future?

To be honest, serving as a legislator has depressed my outlook for the future. We seem to be more caught up in petty partisan and personal fights than in caring about genuine policy debates. I initially went into politics thinking I would be able to effect change and make the world a better place. But now it seems that nothing will change. That is why I have decided to finish my degree and further my education before pursuing elected office again. I will continue to be a civic-minded person, but seeing the underbelly of the political machine up close has forced me to rethink where I can create true change in this system.

braxton mitchell montana
Mitchell

Rep. Braxton Mitchell

  • R-Montana
  • Born: May 20, 2000
  • Elected: November 2020
When did you first get involved in politics?

I grew up in a very conservative household in rural Montana. Since a young age, I had always followed politics. I first got involved after the 2018 Parkland school shooting when nationwide high school walkouts were occurring. I realized it had turned into an anti-Second Amendment walkout and decided to get a large (separate) group of students together to show our support for the students who lost their lives but also stand in support of the Second Amendment.

How do you respond to people who questioned whether you could do the job at your age?

My simple response to this was to engage them and prove myself worthy—as any legislator should do.

What’s some advice you live by?

One of my colleagues told me to never be afraid to be the only person who votes no.

david morales ri
Morales

Rep. David Morales

Nation’s youngest Latino legislator

  • D-Rhode Island
  • Born: Sept. 16, 1998
  • Elected: November 2020
What got you interested in serving in elective office?

Growing up, I was raised in a small rural community alongside my older sister and my single mother. And at a very young age, I quickly saw how much my mother had to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. In my early adolescence I started to put the points together, and I realized that government and public policy could be designed in a way that would further support families like mine coming from a lower-income background, coming from a single mother. And that’s when I realized that I wanted to pursue a life focused on public service.

Was it a hard decision to run at such a young age?

I would definitely say it was because I am a first-generation American. I don’t come from generational wealth and I was the first person in my family to go to college, much less being the first person in my family to ever think about running for office. What ultimately made my decision to run was the support I was receiving from a lot of friends and fellow community activists.

What advice do you live by?

I always cite my mom. One thing we say in Spanish is “vale la pena,” meaning “it’s worth the struggle.” If you believe in something passionately enough, you are inevitably going to run into obstacles. However, it is those obstacles and your ability to overcome them that allow you to achieve your goal.

My advice to other young legislators who will face similar struggles is to be prepared to do the work, because initially not much will be expected of you. But you can quickly change that perception by feeling passionate about your ideas and presenting them unapologetically with the facts and with the evidence.

carter nordman iowa
Nordman

Rep. Carter Nordman

  • R-lowa
  • Born: May 27, 1998
  • Elected: November 2020
When did you first get involved in politics?

The first campaign I was involved in was Sen. (Chuck) Grassley’s campaign in 2010. My grandmother recognized my interest and passion for government and politics. She called up the senator’s campaign office asking if she could bring her 11-year-old grandson in to volunteer. They immediately said yes. We ended up returning to the office at least once a week the entire summer and into the fall, making thousands of yard signs and dialing hundreds of voters’ phones.

Did people question whether you could do the job at such a young age?

Yes, people did ask. But by far while I was (knocking on) doors around my district, I heard, “I love seeing young people running and getting involved.”

What has surprised you about being a state legislator?

Some of my best friends and colleagues are two to three times my age. One of my first days at the Capitol, the House majority leader, Matt Windschitl, gave me some great advice: “No matter your age, gender, race, religion or position, your constituents sent you here just as much as anyone else in this building. Your vote counts just as much as the most senior member of this body.”

Kelley Griffin writes and edits for NCSL.

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