Delegates Emily Brewer and Jay Jones may be the face of a new wave of lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly.
Jones, a 28-year-old Democrat from Norfolk, and Brewer, a 33-year-old Republican from Suffolk, have formed what some may see as an unlikely bipartisan friendship.
And it’s not a faux facade of bipartisanship, either. They gave each other a bear hug after Wednesday’s news conference, fist bumping on the floor and mocking each other relentlessly, all in good fun. They co-patron each other’s bills.
It’s that kind of “honey badger attitude” (Google it – it’s a YouTube meme) that define this generation, says Del. Chris Peace, 41, who was the youngest elected member when he first entered the House 13 years ago.
“They don’t care about all the stuff that divided us, and I think that means they will be the next great generation of Americans and we need to reflect those types of policies,” Peace said.
Jones and Brewer are among the nearly 20 lawmakers that represent the millennial contingent in the statehouse.
And for years, young legislators have tried to band together to form a caucus, but the numbers weren’t there. That changes with this last election that brought in 14 new people under the age of 45.
Wednesday, lawmakers announced the Virginia’s Future Caucus as a coalition loosely defined for millennials. They aren’t checking IDs: Several lawmakers under 45 are part of the new contingent.
But creating those bipartisan bonds, and advocating for issues that affect young people – student debt, affordable college, the changing job market, green energy and new technologies – is part of the reason lawmakers want to get together on a regular basis.
There are several “caucuses” or groups of legislators who belong to a particular interest or group: the Sportsman’s Caucus for hunters; the Speaker’s Sunrise Caucus, which is an early morning Bible study; and caucuses for localities, too, like the Hampton Roads caucus and the rural caucus.
Virginia’s Future Caucus is part of the Millennial Action Project’s national effort to support young elected officials as they work to break through partisan gridlock and re-establish political cooperation, a release said.
“We have two big goals: have good time and have some social events,” said caucus chair Del. Sam Rasoul. “We’ve heard how in the ’80s deals used to get done over a steak dinner and building a relationship ... but we can see past tribalism that divided us for so long.
“Our other goal is to find what policy areas can we innovate in a smart way.”
Many talked about the impact of the Founding Fathers had in their 20s, 30s and 40s. To them, age didn’t matter, said Steven Olikara, founder of Millennial Action Project.
The group comes at a time when politics aren’t super popular with the young demographic.
Nearly half of millennials say they don’t have a say in government and only 32 percent believe running for office is honorable, according to recent studies.
“There is a national narrative that millennials are disaffecting from the process and don’t believe politics can solve the problems of today,” Olikara said. “Today we initiate a counter-narrative: We can overcome partisan tribalism and focus on long term solutions.
“We do believe the next generation of leaders can be part of the solution.”
For Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, 35, a teacher from Henrico County, said he sees his role as helping to create an economy that works for this generation.
“There is no more 30-year career in one job with a pension,” VanValkenburg said. “We need an economy that still works, where you can have a family and be in a job like teaching.”
For others, part of their duties, they say, is translating some of the newer tech issues like Bitcoin, blockchain, Airbnb and Uber and Lyft to other lawmakers.
“A lot of them didn’t know what those were,” Peace said.
Brewer said the recent election could create a foundation for more millennials to come into their own.“We are beginning to turn the corner,” Brewer said. “After our peers saw us get elected, I personally heard from people that were inspired to pay closer attention and get involved in the process.
“Because we are everyday people, our peers finally feel like they have a voice.”