A smile radiated from Sarah Laszloffy’s face as she recited the oath of office on the floor of the Montana House of Representatives. At only 21 years of age, she became the youngest member of Montana’s 63rd Legislature.
“It was surreal,” said the new Republican lawmaker from Laurel. “It’s really humbling, and I can’t believe that it’s actually happening.”
Laszloffy isn’t the only young newcomer to the Legislature. Three other freshman representatives hailing from districts across the state are also in their 20s, and all sit on the Republican side of the aisle. The previous Legislature did not see nearly as many young Republican faces.
Their presence here stems from a fresh wave of enthusiasm for conservative principles. In particular, the House’s four youngest newcomers this session bring economic priorities to the table.
Fiscal problems as catalyst
The country’s current economic status has a number of young conservatives worried about their generation’s future, including 28-year-old Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale. He said the Great Recession sparked an awareness among young people of the fiscal realities they will face as adults.
“A lot of us were going to college at that time and saw the career fairs just disappear,” Galt said. “No one was hiring anymore, and a lot of (graduates) came out struggling for jobs.”
As a result, he said, young people realized the GOP could do more for job growth. He, for one, said he stands for smaller government and fewer taxes to let private industry do what it does best: employ people.
Fellow Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, agreed the economic downturn has pushed young people toward fiscal conservatism early in life. During his first few years in college, he did not worry about finding a job upon graduation. When the recession hit, student debt, salaries and career opportunities suddenly became major concerns.
“It makes you ask the hard questions at a young age,” the 25-year-old said. “We want to talk numbers, we want to talk about who’s paying for what, and we want to talk about the long-term model, not the short-term model.”
Party leaders also recognize the role fiscal concerns played in mobilizing their younger colleagues during the 2012 election cycle.
“They feel differently about the national debt because it will impact them more than the older generation,” said Rep. Christy Clark, R-Choteau.
Clark sees young conservatives becoming increasingly involved in crafting the party’s future, as demonstrated by their interest in the state’s upcoming GOP convention in June.
For the first time, young Republicans have asked Clark, who serves as vice-chair of the Montana Republican Party, to organize convention workshops geared toward people their age to cover topics like grassroots organizing and media outreach.
“They’re taking politics to the next level,” she said. “I don’t think it’s an anomaly – I think it’s a trend.”
Opportunity for collaboration
The youngest Republican, Laszloffy, sits next to the youngest Democrat, Rep. Bryce Bennett of Missoula, on the House Education Committee, and the two laughed over the arrangement last week as they introduced themselves to committee members. Several days later Laszloffy and Bennett smiled side-by-side as they escorted U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., down the aisle to the House podium, where he hit on the topic of bipartisanship in a speech to the Legislature.
Bennett, 28, said he appreciates the new abundance of young lawmakers across the aisle, but that doesn’t mean that young people have abandoned the Democratic Party.
At the age of 26 during the 2011 session, he held the title of Montana’s youngest state legislator. Although he still remains the youngest Democrat, he says there are a number of others in his party in their early 30s and several in their 20s who campaigned, but lost during the 2012 election.
“I think that there’s one party that’s really investing in the things that matter to young people,” Bennett said, referring to his own party. “We want to have opportunities to jobs – good paying jobs – and we want affordable education so we’re not taking on a bunch of debt when we leave college.”
He said he hopes some of the attention his young, conservative colleagues place on those issues will spread to the rest of the GOP. He sees opportunity to partner on proposals that would benefit youth around the state, and is already building relationships to start that dialogue.
The young Republicans have found willing partners among Democrats, with two already working with members of the other party to draft bills to implement stricter child sex trafficking laws and to protect personal information online.
When Zolnikov knocked on doors during his campaign, constituents told him time and time again they wanted an end to partisan bickering. Their convictions reinforced his desire to find common ground and within his first few days in the House, he made an effort to meet Democrats and began working with one on legislation.
“You can say it, or you can act,” he said. “There will be a struggle in a few weeks or a few months and it’s going to get harder, but if we can at least start that dialogue now, it gives a little bit of hope to working together.”
A steep learning curve
The youngest members of the House have lofty goals for the session, yet they recognize they must make educated decisions about unfamiliar topics.
Rep. Nicholas Schwaderer, R-Superior, said older legislators are spot-on when they call the freshman learning curve “a drink from the fire hose.”
The 24-year-old sits on the House Taxation Committee and during the first meeting last week, he heard from experts about state revenue estimates and economic forecasts.
“It can be hard sometimes when there’s testimony to keep your mind in it when it gets really bogged down, but I find that one of the best ways is to ask a lot of questions,” he said.
While veterans on the committee better understand the intricacies of the tax structure, Schwaderer said he has noticed that each of the freshmen – whether they’re 20 or 60 – are asking the same questions to get up to speed.
“There’s a point where we’re all on the same playing field regardless of age,” he said.
Clark, who sits on the House floor between Laszloffy and Galt, said she’s impressed by the young newcomers’ confidence, knowledge and effort to educate themselves.
“I thought, ‘These poor little kids will need some mothering,’ but they don’t,” she said.
So far, veteran lawmakers have both welcomed and helped train newcomers, said Laszloffy, whose father, Jeff, served in the statehouse and is now the President of the Montana Family Foundation.
The learning goes both ways, she said.
“It’s great because I’m gaining their wisdom and exchanging ideas,” she said. “And having our faces on the floor helps remind the legislative body that there’s more than just their generation to think about.”