MISSOULA, MONT. — Jon Williams, newly 18, has the privilege of voting this year for the first time. When he enters the curtained booth next Tuesday and considers his options for state representative, he'll pull the lever next to his own name.
This kid from Missoula - who doesn't yet own a car and who still sports the peach fuzz of adolescence - wants to represent part of this city in Montana's statehouse.
He's all business about it, too. Dressed in a pin-striped suit, Mr. Williams plies the streets with the savvy of a political veteran. In neighborhoods where his handmade yard signs proliferate, he beams confidence. But as he moves into the stronghold of his challenger, he says resolutely: "I need to work harder before election day."
Like a growing contingent of young candidates in the United States, Williams is hoping hard work and exuberance can make up for inexperience and a small campaign war chest.
Whether driven by idealism or prodded by parties looking for new recruits in a time of term limits, more young people are making the leap to running for public office. Their ambitions reach from town hall to Capitol Hill, and, even if only a few of them win, their entry into politics is transforming the look of elections long dominated by candidates twice their age.
"In general, we have seen an upswing in the number of our members entering politics, be it for seats on the local school board, the state legislature, or in congressional races," says Mance Bowden, executive director of Young Republicans in Washington. Nationwide, the organization has about 150,000 members less than 30 years old.
Mr. Bowden says young people are getting more involved in politics because they've seen the level of public trust in candidates fall off. "They want to raise the bar to a higher standard and help restore integrity to the process," he says.
Democrats, too, are witnessing a surge in the number of young adults queuing up to run, especially recent college graduates who talk of Watergate but weren't even born when the scandal culminated in President Nixon's resignation.
Term limits are the thing
But political experts say that, more than for their innocence and patriotic altruism, young candidates are being recruited to fill slots left vacant by politicians ousted by term limits.
"I don't think there's any question that in particular states where voters have passed term limits, young people are being courted for certain races out of necessity," says Kevin Mack, who oversees the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "Young candidates getting elected used to be a rare exception because old incumbents would hold onto seats for 20 years. Term limits have made that a thing of the past."
Mr. Mack argues that young people today are more likely to become candidates, get elected, and later move on to a regular job than to pursue politics when they're in their 50s and it disrupts their lives. "Young people see politics as a starting point, not an end point," he adds.
Take, for instance, Maine.
Mack says at least a dozen state legislatures have incumbents in their mid 20s who have risen into leadership positions. But Maine is certainly leading the trend. As one of the first states to implement term limits, Maine now has a solid core of twentysomethings controlling key committees in the legislature.
A rising star in New England politics and, at 31, a grand old dean of the Maine House, Mike Saxl is the current House majority whip. This election, he is running for his third two-year term and will spend about $2,000 on his campaign.
"I'm the elder statesman in the Kids Caucus," laughs Representative Saxl, who won his first race in a general election. "I think that in Maine, the presence of young people reflects the economic reality of our citizen legislature."
Because many young politicians are single, pay rent rather than mortgages, and don't have to care for children, they can afford to live on the $8,000 annual legislative salary.
Saxl's Kids Caucus colleagues in Augusta now control the finance, appropriations, and health and human services committees, among others. They include Tommy Davidson, Cassie Stevens, and Elizabeth Mitchell, daughter of former US Senate majority leader George Mitchell.
The Williams file
Still, they are considered "old" compared with Williams.
Not yet a college freshman and a product of home schooling, Williams plans to study political science at the University of Montana next year, though in practice his real-world education has already begun by going door-to-door to meet prospective constituents and persuading complete strangers to trust his teenage instincts.
Ironically, in this liberal college town located near the high peaks of the Continental Divide, the lack of experience in political office may actually be counted as an asset among voters who have been left disenchanted by Washington scandals.
The district that Williams hopes to represent is the poorest in Missoula, and it has not, at least in the past, been regarded as friendly terrain for GOP candidates.
Voters in House District 66 are an eclectic congregation of blue-collar workers who faithfully pay their union dues, artists, college students, and retirees subsisting on monthly Social Security checks.
Until this year, the seat was held by a woman who was openly homosexual.
But as far as Republicans go, Williams, who moonlights as a shoe salesman, is not an iconoclast. He is religious and a pro-lifer, his favorite politician is Harry Truman, he supports labor unions, and he is a committed conservationist.
Still, in Montana, as in Maine, "progressive" candidates from any party face a challenge that is more daunting than their opponents: voter apathy.
A couple weeks ago in Missoula, Williams and New Party challenger Gayle Gutsche debated their positions at a public forum in front of two other eligible voters in the audience. "I think I won the debate," Williams says.
"Both of them came up to me afterward and told me I would get their vote."
Williams acknowledge that he is a long shot, but his supporters, who include crossover Democrats, believe he is closing the gap.
"Whatever happens, I'll be glad when the campaigning is over," he says. "I don't think I would put myself through another race. It's hard work and you're always broke. They say running for office isn't public service, but it is."