Millennial infusion: Virginia's statehouse takes a slightly younger turn

RICHMOND — A younger generation of Virginia politicians was sworn in Wednesday.

With 19 new delegates, 14 of whom are under age 45, Virginia’s House of Delegates welcomed more millennial delegates to the chamber, including seven delegates, born in 1980 or later.

Millennial voters turned out in full force in November, ousting more than a dozen incumbent Republican delegates, only one of whom was under age 45. In their place, young voters elected a demographically diverse group of new delegates that skews younger in age — making the House more representative of Virginia’s population.

“We can be really unique spokespeople for our generation,” said Del. Emily Brewer.

At 33 years old, Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, is the youngest Republican in the House.

Wanting to represent members of her generation was a small factor in Brewer’s decision to run for office. She was more concerned with the flood of young people moving out of her largely rural district.

Many of her region's peers leave for college and then move to places like Washington, D.C., or New York City, Brewer said. The district doesn’t have enough jobs and opportunities for those young people to come home after school, she said.

Brewer hopes to change that dynamic.

With lofty goals and high energy, Brewer rarely gets nervous about starting her political career. But when she does, she’s reminded that America’s Founding Fathers were young, too. Thomas Jefferson was 34 years old when he joined the predecessor to today's Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Del. Jay Jones, 28, will become the youngest member of the House.

Jones, D-Norfolk, is well aware of his youthfulness because voters often remarked on it while he was campaigning. Some jokingly asked if he was even old enough to vote.

A diverse chamber promotes a better dialogue because younger legislators come in with a different perspective, new ideas and more energy, Jones said.

“I think there are a host of us coming in this year who are under the age of 40 who are buoyed by a sense of impassioned activism and a general sort of intrigue with the process,” he said.

Young voter turnout surged in Virginia’s 2017 election. Approximately 366,000 voters age 18 to 29 cast ballots in the November election, adding up to 34 percent youth voter turnout, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Turnout among young adults doubled from where it was eight years ago and was up 8 percent from 2013.

Those young voters are partly credited with a sea change that catapulted an unprecedented number of Democrats into the statehouse in November. 

"Just the fact that young people are getting more engaged, I think that encourages other young people that they have enough political support to be an ambassador and increase our reputation for young Virginians," said Tim Cywinski, spokesman for Virginia21. Based in Richmond, Virginia21 is a nonpartisan advocacy group that works to get millennials involved in politics.

Millennials, young adults born in the 1980s and '90s, are the fastest growing group of voters in the country and could overtake Generation Xers by the next presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center

The average age of Virginia's delegates will barely change, dropping from 54 to 52 years old, according to a Roanoke Times analysis of data provided by the Virginia Public Access Project. But the freshman delegates will likely inject more millennial-specific issues into the larger political dialogue, Cywinski said. 

Lawmakers often introduce legislation based on their personal experiences, and millennials face unique economic challenges, he said. Millennials are the first generation predicted to be worse off than their parents since the Great Depression. They're also more concerned with college affordability and student debt, problems their parents may have never experienced, he said. 

With a younger legislature, you're likely to see more of those issues bubble to the surface, Cywinski said.

Del.-elect Chris Hurst is a prime example. Hurst, 30, filed legislation addressing student privacy concerns and this week, introduced a resolution asking the state to study alternative collection structures for people who fall behind on their student loan payments. 

"Our whole lives we’ve been told 'you’re the future,' and now we’re seeing this wave of young folks getting directly involved because they’re tired of waiting their turn to make an impact and they’re tired of others speaking on their behalf," Cywinski said. "I think and I hope that this wave signals to all millennials that the future is now."