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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published March 09 2013

Young North Dakotans drawn to public service

GRAND FORKS – A year ago, Alex Looysen was a 20-year-old biology student at Jamestown (N.D.) College who shared the disdain that many young Americans had for politics, politicians and government.

Now, at 21, the youngest member of the North Dakota Legislature – perhaps the youngest in the country – Republican Rep. Looysen said he’s getting an education in Bismarck.

“Going in, I probably had close to the same perception as much of the public – that politics is a lot of bickering and not getting anything done,” he said. “But this has been a pleasant surprise.”

If you can say “sequester,” you might counsel your children against pining for a career in politics or government right now. Especially at the federal level, it’s a profession that ranks in public esteem about as low as – well, as low as journalists.

“There definitely have been days with anger and frustration and maybe some tears,” said Rep. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks, who at age 24 is believed to be the youngest female state legislator in the country.

“But I’ve found it’s really a good process to be involved in,” she said. “We’re here doing what we believe in. We may not make a lot of progress today or tomorrow, but we’ll get there.”

‘They believe ...’

Mark Jendrysik, a professor of political science at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, said he has “five or six former students who have served in the Legislature,” and he doesn’t see a declining interest among young people.

“We have a fairly steady number of students who want to go into public service,” he said. “They think it’s a good thing, so popular opinion doesn’t sway them much.”

It may be that public service in a state with a small population is more attractive, Jendrysik said, because it can seem easier to have an impact, and it can happen faster.

“It’s possible the interest in politics is reduced some by the dysfunction in Washington,” he said. “But their view is they’re going to go in there and make changes. They believe the problems can be fixed.”

He said political science majors may get pushback from friends or parents, “but it’s more along the lines of, ‘Why do you want to major in that? You’ll never get a job.’ But a ‘fashionable despair’ is something more for older people, I think. Students just aren’t like that. The ones who go into public service really do believe they can make things better.”

No gridlock here

Stacey Dahl, 31, was 23 when she was elected to the Legislature in 2004 for the first of two four-year terms. She chose not to run in 2012, saying that she and her husband wanted to start a family.

Now manager of external affairs for Minnkota Power Cooperative in Grand Forks, she said she’s expecting their first child in August.

“When you talk about Congress, I hold our congressional delegation ... in very high esteem,” she said. “But when you look at the entire picture in Washington, it’s a very frustrating dynamic and hard for a lot of young people to process.

“On the state level, though, we have a very functional state government. It’s just not an option to have gridlock. You may not agree with every policy decision, but they get their work done.”

Dahl said her grandfather “thought I was probably too tender-hearted to get into politics,” but family and friends were supportive of her decision to run.

“You need a true desire and a fire in the belly” to seek political office, she said. “There are huge, consequential decisions you’ll have to make.

“I loved it. I’m so grateful to have had those eight years, to have had that experience.”

Logan Fletcher, 21, the current UND student body president, said the idea of running for public office “has crossed my mind,” but “I have a problem with people who set out to be politicians.” He’s considering graduate school in higher-education administration.

Young people “are not a homogenous group,” he said, “but a lot of young people have the same frustration as older adults with the inability of people in Washington to work together. It’s always a battle, always a lot of hostility.”

People of his generation “want to develop their individuality,” he said, “but we also are more willing to work with people of different backgrounds.”

Egos or results

Like Dahl, Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, was 23 when he was first elected to represent the UND-student-heavy District 42 in 2008. He was re-elected in 2012 with Oversen and Sen. Mac Schneider, the minority leader.

“North Dakota has one of the highest concentrations of younger elected officials, people under the age of 35 or 40,” Mock said. “That speaks to the passion many of our young people feel.

“You see what happens in Washington and in other states, and it seems like you have a lot of egos who care more about getting 15 minutes in front of TV cameras than getting any results,” he said.

“I did get it from friends and family: ‘Why would you want to get involved in such a mess?’ ” he said “But it’s because of their involvement and their willingness to work with one another that we can work toward good policies that benefit the people.”

Looysen has taken a semester off from his biology studies at Jamestown College.

“When I ran, some friends questioned it and asked me why I would want to do that,” he said. “But what it came down to for me was how I saw the federal government wasn’t working, that it was spending our children’s money, and I didn’t want to see North Dakota go down that path.

“I’ve had a few friends visit me here, and they’ve told me how surprised they were at how open it is and how much we get done.”