Hurdles Remain for Millennials Entering State Politics

Jan 20, 2017

Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Pasco, is the youngest member of the Florida legislature. She's 21.
Credit Mariano campaign

  From March 7 to May 5, proposals on a host of issues like college affordability and healthcare access will be debated among Florida lawmakers in the annual legislative session. But who are the lawmakers making the decisions to shape Florida’s future? More specifically, are millennials, or people the U.S. Census defines as born between 1982 and 2000, proportionately represented in the Florida legislature?

The data suggests: Not really.

Millennials are now America’s largest generation. But a recent survey by Stateline and National Conference of State Legislatures found they are vastly underrepresented in state legislatures, including Florida.  Given most lawmakers are baby boomers, the data suggests the potential exists for policymaking to reflect the interests of seniors instead of young people.

The report says the age disparity could fuel a disconnect between young voters and the institutions of government.

In Florida millennials make up over a quarter of the state population, yet they hold just 10 percent of the Legislature’s 160 seats. The average age of a Florida legislator? 51.

In November, University of Central Florida junior Amber Mariano became one of the youngest people elected to the Florida Legislature. She’s 21.

“Just because my age is below that average, I don’t think that being an outlier is a negative thing. It’s a strength because people will be looking to me for things that affect our youth,” Mariano said.

Mariano feels confident she can bring a new perspective in the Legislature on issues facing Florida’s millennials, particularly in the area of college affordability. One Mariano proposal would increase the number of credit hours an in-state student can take before facing a 100 percent tuition surcharge. Another would allow Bright Futures scholarships to be used to cover summer tuition costs.

Despite Mariano’s win, major hurdles remain for young people aspiring to enter politics.

Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida, says part of the reason millennials are underrepresented in government has to do with the vast amount of time needed to gain political experience. They don’t have it. Campaigns are expensive and millennials are broke.

“It costs quite a bit to campaign even if it’s something simple as passing out brochures or creating bumper stickers to get your name out there. Even when you’re trying to go the cheap route and advertise on radio,” MacManus said.

They also lack name recognition that historically depends on giving speeches and gaining the support of rotary clubs or organizations like the League of Women Voters.

“A young person just graduating who thinks they can just immediately announce and do well without getting some experience and familiarity with people in your district is really not realistic,” MacManus said.

In Mariano’s case, MacManus said, she benefitted from the name recognition that came with being the daughter of Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano.

MacManus sees another growing problem among young people: political cynicism. She says it is driven by a perception that money and special interests have excessive influence in politics, which polls have shown are sources of concern among younger voters.

Ahead of an appearance by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos last September, several FSU students voiced alarm over government corruption.

“I would say that government corruption is more subtle than it has been in the past,” said Thomas Paine.

I definitely think the government is getting corrupt, more corrupt every day,” said Hagan Gary.

“It seems to me that we don’t have people who are fighting for our rights in government, but instead they’re fighting for the rights of businesses and foreign powers,” said Will Leech.

According to MacManus, young voters’ disdain of the two-party system is fueling support for third parties.

“You’re starting to see higher cynicism about the two-party system among younger voters than other age groups. That’s why in our state, for example, [we had] the highest incidence of younger voters voting for either Jill Stein or Gary Johnson,” MacManus said.

Representative Mariano, however, is optimistic about the future. She says other young legislators before her have helped pave the way for young people to enter state politics. For example: fellow Republican Rep. Jennifer Sullivan and State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam were elected to the Florida House in their early 20s. 

Correction: The story originally said Amber Mariano was the youngest person elected to the Florida Legislature. She is one of the youngest. Former state agricultural commissioner Doyle Conner was elected at the age of 20.