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Young Elected Leaders Don't Reflect US Diversity, Expert Says - 2004-07-31

One of the highlights of the Democratic National Convention was the keynote address by Barack Obama, a 42-year-old civil rights attorney from Chicago who's campaigning for a national Senate seat. Mr. Obama began his political career in 1996, when he was elected to the Illinois State Senate at the age of 35. There aren't many people in this country who begin their political careers before that age and as VOA's Maura Farrelly reports, Barack Obama isn't exactly typical of the ones who have.

The headlines that ran the morning after Barack Obama's address included words like "rousing" and "electric." One paper even gave him the title of "rock star." There was no question that evening that the crowd was moved by his words.

"There's not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America. There's the United States of America," Mr. Obama said.

Barack Obama is the third African-American to deliver the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention and if he's elected to the Senate, he'll become only the fifth African-American ever to serve in that body. Historically, the United States Senate hasn't been racially diverse. And if the current crop of young elected leaders is any indication, that situation may not be changing any time soon. Ruth Mandell is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. She recently completed an extensive study of elected officials who began their political careers before the age of 35.

"What we found was that the people sitting at the table at the beginning of the 21st century who were age 35 and younger looked very much like the people who had been sitting at the table all along for the last couple of centuries," she notes. "Most of them were men. Most of them were white. Most of them were fairly well-to-do, highly educated and Christian and not very diverse."

Professor Mandell and her colleagues identified 814 people currently serving in elected positions who are all under the age of 35. Of those serving, 81 percent of them are white, 85 percent of them are male and 96 percent of them are Christian. Ruth Mandell says when she began the study, she expected to find that the population of young elected leaders would be more diverse than the overall population of leaders.

"I thought that the beginning of the 21st century in our culture, in our country, which is a multiethnic, multiracial, pluralistic society, I thought that the potential leadership should, and perhaps might even really represent that society, more than our leadership in the past," she adds.

But that isn't what she found, and Ruth Mandell says she believes it's because women and minorities have felt alienated from electoral politics. She says it isn't that they aren't passionate about issues, they just choose to direct their attention elsewhere.

"They've been engaged in environmental issues, even trade issues, all sorts of issues, social issues, domestic issues. But they've also, often, shunned electoral politics because electoral politics has had a bad name for many of them, and I think, by the way, that's a mistake. I think it's an incorrect judgment," she says.

Ruth Mandell isn't the only one who feels that way. At a gathering of so-called "Progressive Democrats" held during the party convention, Howard Dean, the man many believed early on would win the Democratic nomination, told a group of young people about a 26-year-old woman from upstate New York. She's running for Congress on the Democratic ticket.

Dean: "This is a seat we can win with a 26-year-old woman who had no previous political experience, but grew up in the district. You can do that. You folks can do that. There's not anybody in this room who wouldn't be a thoughtful, articulate representative. As I'm going to say tonight, politics is too important to be left to politicians. We need your help. It is not enough to go out and do the work. We need you to run for office."

Howard Dean recently founded a political action committee that encourages candidates to run for local, state, and national office. The group is particularly interested in reaching out to young people. And if history is any guide, that's probably a good strategy for the Democratic Party. Twelve of the 19 presidents who served in the 20th century were elected to their first public office before the age of 35. That means there's probably at least one future president among the 814 people Ruth Mandell and her colleagues at Rutgers University identified. And the odds are in favor of that person's being male, Christian and white.