College student, carpenter, and lawmaker

In many ways, Jesse Laslovich is just like most college kids home for summer break.

Last week, the Montana teenager helped his dad, Tony, install a sewer line for a new home. Tomorrow, he'll be pounding nails for his family's construction business.

But come election day this November, the not-yet university sophomore is expected to waltz to victory as one of the youngest candidates ever elected to the state legislature.

Mr. Laslovich is representative of a new cadre of teens and 20-somethings who are casting aside the image of apathetic youth and setting their sights on elected office. Fueled by the term limits and an untrammeled idealism, they are overturning tradition, and in some cases winning seats long considered the domain of middle-age party loyalists.

The level of interest in public service - ironic at a time when opinion polls suggest voters are cynical about government - may be unprecedented, analysts say.

"Young people are changing the face of politics," says Kevin Mack, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which tracks elections across the country. "Dozens upon dozens of people are running campaigns that will propel them into leadership positions."

They may not be heirs to a political dynasty or flush with campaign cash, but these candidates are mounting respectable campaigns with a network of friends ready to go door to door, and with youthful energy. In the process, they've created some history making scenarios, and set themselves up for promising careers.

Big Sky kid

Laslovich grew up in Anaconda listening to stories about how his great-grandfather worked for the famous Butte copper kings and operated a smelter in the giant oven outside town.

His family, he says, has always had an affinity for working-class folks, and that sits well with people around here. Anaconda, one of the oldest cities in Montana, is struggling to survive after a century of mining. As in the old Rust Belt cities of the East, Victorian homes and storefronts are reminders of the town's proud but distant times of prosperity.

Laslovich's main issue is trying to turn around the economy. To keep young people in the state, he says, Montana must diversify into high tech and become more a part of the New West.

Around town, he shuns politician's ties and wingtip shoes for the clothes he wears to work at his dad's construction company: flannel shirts, blue jeans, and a solid pair of work boots.

But talk to the blue-eyed, six-foot teenager about politics, and he begins to sound like a representative heading to the State Capitol. Already, he's met with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and Atlantic-Richfield Corp. to discuss how to clean up one of the biggest mining-related Superfund sites in the US, located nearby.

While he still has a general election ahead, he's already won the Democratic nomination. Now, he's running unopposed.

"I'm not headed to Helena to stir things up, but I will stand for what I believe in," says Laslovich, who doesn't drink alcohol and serves as a Eucharistic minister at his local Catholic church. "I see the problems that exist in society, and I will speak out on what's right and wrong."

For other aspiring politicians, college is the perfect time to begin public service. In New Hampshire, for instance, the pay for legislators is so small that "to run for office, you either have to be retired, independently wealthy, or a student," says Rep. Bobby Rodrique, who was elected to the legislature two autumns ago while a student at Keene State College.

When he was elected, he joined a half dozen first-year lawmakers in their 20s. Juggling lawmaking with writing term papers was difficult, and he says his grades suffered when the legislature was in session. But he also helped his fraternity brothers connect to what was going on in politics.

"Among people my age and those who are older, I've tried to make politics a pocketbook issue," he says. "We in government are managing roughly one- third of people's income. I encourage my constituents to ask: 'Why are you taking so much?' "

Idealism with practicality

It's this exuberance and willingness to attack the issues that led Maine's Mike Saxl into politics. And the 32-year-old, already in his third term, is a testament to how far young candidates can go. If reelected this autumn, Mr. Saxl could become Maine's youngest Speaker of the House.

He points to term limits and a freedom from familial responsibility as a boon for young politicians, but he's inspired by something else, as well.

"There is a great optimism at the core of this movement, which is defined by the next generation acting on its personal ideals and leaving a mark," he says. "My advice to younger candidates is to blend your ideals with a sense of pragmatism.... Change does come incrementally, but you can have an enormous impact in a very short time."

Jake Oken-Berg is proof of that. When the teenager decided to take a semester leave from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., to run for mayor of Portland, Ore., he was told it would take $1 million to launch a decent campaign.

Instead, as candidates bowed out due to a lack of funds, Mr. Oken-Berg set up shop in the study of his parents' home, deployed a Web site, and milked the novelty of his youth for all the media attention he could get.

"I thought, 'How pathetic it would be to live in a democracy and not have a good substantive debate of the issues,' " he says. "It doesn't matter who wins as long as voters are given a choice."

Spending just $5,000, he garnered 27 percent of the vote earlier this month and placed second in a field of 17 candidates, losing to a two-term incumbent. Pundits give him credit for marshaling one of the lowest dollar-per-vote spending ratios in modern politics.

Many young candidates already seem to understand this lesson of practical politics. In Pennsylvania, Tan Vo isn't running for a seat in the state House to foment a revolution. In fact, she thinks things are going all right.

"I'm not a big bucker of the system. It's just not productive," says Ms. Vo, a 29-year-old Vietnamese-American research chemist in conservative Lancaster County, who has managed other campaigns.

What she does want to do is check the crime, drugs, and violence spreading into her county from New York. She has been endorsed by the Republican governor, the state attorney general, and the state Speaker of the House.

"I love this stuff," she says.

Farmer's daughter

The same could be said for Amy Sue Vruwink, a perky 25-year-old who who grew up on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, and is now vying for a seat in the state Assembly.

A self-described political fanatic, Ms. Vruwink is currently an aide to a congressman. Since her early teens, she says, she's known that she wanted to be in politics. As a result, she's purposefully lived a clean life to avoid any hint of scandal.

"It's important to have involvement from people who are willing to make the commitment, regardless of how old they are," she says. "It's their ideas that count."

Back in Montana, Laslovich plans to sit out the second semester at the University of Montana. But his professors say the political-science major will receive credit for getting a healthy dose of real-world experience.

Those years of watching C-SPAN seem to finally be paying off. "I've always wanted to go to law school and then enter politics," he says. " Nobody thought I would do it so soon."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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