Their first job after college? Lawmaker

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Tom Davidson was 22 when he was elected to Maine's House of Representatives - and his colleagues took Puckish note of his pink-cheeked status by leaving baby diapers on his desk.

Five years later, Mr. Davidson co-chairs a major legislative committee, where he's overseeing the controversial, complicated task of dismantling a utilities monopoly.

And there are plenty more "youngsters" serving here in the capital of Augusta. As it turns out, Maine's experiment with term limits - and a Yankee proclivity for hard work - has produced one of the most influential cadres of young lawmakers in the US.

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They call themselves the Kids Caucus, and to the degree they hang together (both on the issues and at the local bowling alley after hours), they've become a force to be reckoned with. Among the twentysomethings (and a few barely thirtysomethings) are the House majority leader and the second-ranking lawmaker on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Young, single, and mostly Democratic, they share interests in funding for higher education, children's and women's issues, voter participation, and accountability.

They stuck together, for instance, on a reform measure that prohibits lawmakers from fund-raising during the six months the Legislature is in session. They took some heat from those who saw nothing wrong with attending dinners with lobbyists right before big votes on pertinent bills, but in the end the restrictions passed.

"It keeps the legislators doing their work," says Davidson, who first dreamed up the reform while on the road with Mike Saxl, the House majority leader.

Other states have term limits, but the "kid effect" may be unique to Maine. That may be partly because many term-limit states pay lawmakers more than the $8,000 salary Maine does (for a December-to-May session). But part of it, too, may be the ingrained New England commitment to public service.

Representative Saxl, wearing a fish-patterned tie and a broad smile, says the Kids Caucus has bridged two goals: public service and having fun. "We could talk about what bands were playing, or we could talk about how welfare reform is impacting the people in our neighborhoods," he says.

For some, that commitment to public service is inherited. Mr. Saxl's mother has represented Bangor in the House since 1992. And Kathleen Stevens, the high-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, also followed in a parent's footsteps. "I knew that mom did this as a service job," says Representative Stevens, whose mother spent 10 years in the Legislature and encouraged her to run for an open seat in 1992.

Stevens was first elected in the college town where she had just graduated. She's risen through the ranks the usual way - hard work and recognition by House leaders.

Without term limits, which disqualified 26 of 151 House members from running again in 1996, Stevens doesn't believe she would have reached her current position. But she still says term limits are a bad idea, giving too much power to lobbyists and bureaucrats by removing experienced legislators. Moreover, Stevens is about to be "term-limited" out of office - probably the youngest person in any state legislature to be forced to "retire."

The bond between members of the Kids Caucus - there are about a dozen in all - runs deep, and many say their friendships have helped get them over a steep learning curve. For the youngest members, Saxl is like a big brother, says Rep. Brian Bolduc, who, at 25, is starting his second term. "This is a pretty old institution ... and you can feel a bit isolated at times," he says. So he values feedback from young colleagues, not to mention the bowling nights.

While interactions between state legislators have not been studied much, Maine's Kids Caucus may well be the only group of young lawmakers who have organized both socially and around issues, says David Berman, an expert in comparative state governments at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Of course, caucus members don't always see eye to eye on everything. On this particular day, Stevens voted against a smoking ban that Saxl supported. But there were no hard feelings as she and Davidson joined Saxl for lunch after the vote. "We don't put pressure on each other, but we definitely go out of our way to help each other when we agree," Davidson says.

Young legislators do have to work to convince people they are serious, says Saxl, who acknowledges his beard has helped, even though he didn't grow it to look older. He logged 35,000 miles last year working with candidates and incumbents on his way to being chosen as majority leader.

But age is not a barrier, say these young lawmakers, who count many older members among their friends and mentors. "If you do your homework and you know the issues, age, race, sex, and any other categorization has little or no impact," Davidson says.

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