Recently recognized for her commitment to bipartisan collaboration, Connecticut state Rep. Caroline Simmons believes working across the aisle is essential to restoring Americans’ trust in government and making a difference as a public servant. As a millennial, however, she also values age diversity in state legislatures.
“Young legislators bring new energy and fresh ideas as well as a unique perspective of the issues facing young people in our generation,” Simmons said. “Older legislators certainly bring many strengths as well, including more life experiences and seasoned knowledge about how the legislature works, and it is important to have a mix of both.”
In September, Simmons and Ohio state Sen. Frank LaRose received the Millennial Action Project’s inaugural Rising Star Award for their leadership in enacting bipartisan legislation and their commitment to bipartisan collaboration. A national, nonpartisan group formed about five years ago, the Millennial Action Project supports young policymakers at the state and national levels.
Throughout history, each generation has had a problem to solve, whether it was reconstructing the nation after the Civil War or putting a man on the moon, LaRose said. And each generation has risen to the challenge.
“We won’t know until the history books are written, but I feel like for those of us in our 20s and 30s, what our generational struggle is going to be is making civics work again, making governing work again, getting beyond this tribalism that exists in politics … and just making self-government function right again,” LaRose said.
The Millennial Action Project launched in fall 2013 as opinion polls ranked partisanship as a top threat to democracy, a government shutdown loomed and the approval ratings of members of Congress and state governments dropped, said Steven Olikara, founder and president of the Millennial Action Project. The goal was to look forward to the next generation of leaders.
Olikara said the Millennial Action Project aimed to address how the millennial generation would do things differently and transcend the partisan divide to build a better governing system. The Millennial Action Project started with the Congressional Future Caucus, the nation’s first caucus for young members of Congress, then it moved into states. Now, 26 states have formed state future caucuses of millennial legislators under age 40 or 45.
“The state level is where most of the millennials are taking their first steps into public office, and that becomes the beginning of our leadership pipeline,” Olikara said. In addition, there was a tremendous amount of opportunity at the state level because of the activity in state government with numerous bills being proposed and signed into law everyday.
“We want to not only build out this network and infrastructure of lawmakers who are rising stars and, increasingly, influencers in government, but really to shift the national narrative around public service because today the majority of millennials don’t believe that you can achieve change through politics,” Olikara said.
LaRose serves as a co-chair of the bipartisan Ohio Future Caucus for legislators under age 45. He said it’s important to focus on commonalities rather than differences.
“The fact that we’ve got this group of 20 and 30 somethings that is interested in finding common solutions and ways to govern is really inspiring to me, and it gives us an opportunity to come together,” LaRose said. The Millennial Action Project provides resources and regularly convenes its members while helping them to identify bipartisan opportunities and promoting their members’ policy work.
Millennials involved in state caucuses have introduced legislation that appeals to young people as well as the general population, including legislation related to ridesharing, entrepreneurship and redistricting reform, Olikara said. Layla Zaidane, the Millennial Action Project’s chief operating officer, said she believes in the power of the millennial generation to make a difference.
“The Millennial Action Project is helping policymakers talk to each other, instead of past one another, and is fostering constructive dialogue around the biggest problems in our country,” Zaidane said. “Not only are we working to transcend political tribalism, we’re also creating a leadership pipeline of legislators who have the skills to work collaboratively and the network to create real change.”
Olikara called political tribalism the greatest threat to democracy right now, and he said there “could not be a more important moment for our work.” While the Millennial Action Project “packed a lot of work into five years,” it now plans to look forward and continue thinking about how to grow the organization and become a better resource for its members.
“I think we’ve proven that this model works,” Olikara said. “We’ve proven that there is an intense hunger on the ground for new leadership.”
LaRose, a military veteran, said he wants to recruit other veterans and more women to run for office in addition to more young people.
“What we’ve seen out of Washington in recent years has discouraged, I think, young people from wanting to run for office, and that’s a bad thing,” LaRose said. “We need to hold up public service as an honorable calling, and I think groups like MAP (Millennial Action Project) can help do that.”
Simmons said she went into public service to solve problems in her community, and she praised the Millennial Action Project for bringing together a bipartisan group of leaders who want to fix the political system.
“When only 18 percent of Americans trust our government to do the right thing, we must come together to fix this system,” Simmons said. “We must seek compromise and put country above politics.”