Politics & Government

Promise of youth may change game

FRANKFORT - Beyond the chants for lower college tuition, the 250 or so students who descended upon Frankfort for a higher education rally last week had a lot more to say.

This youngest generation of Kentucky voters and workers faces tremendous uncertainty about the future in terms of how health costs are covered, what opportunities await and how they will afford retirement.

And they know it.

Just ask Jeanne Johnson, a finance and economics major from Western Kentucky University who serves as student body president. In an interview at Wednesday's tuition rally, Johnson said state officials must step up to consider broad new approaches to the health insurance market as well as ways to pay for college.

"Many of us are not happy with the way things are going," she said.

With those overarching concerns as a background, the under-35 generation is slowly showing signs of becoming more engaged in state politics and policy.

Last fall, Kentuckians elected three state representatives who were 35 or younger, more than doubling that generation's presence in the General Assembly to five lawmakers.

Candidates for governor from both parties are tapping young, optimistic activists as foot soldiers and key lieutenants in their campaigns.

And many of the young activists say they're eager to get involved because their youth and idealism might actually do the state some good.

"The hope of our generation is that we try to look at the lay of the land and say, 'What does the 21st century need to look like in Kentucky?'" said Colmon Elridge, 25, who chairs the Fayette County Young Democrats.

"We've got to have bold leadership. We've got to say, 'You know, we've never tried this before and it may shock you. But I promise you if it works, Kentucky will be better off for it, and the nation may be better off for it,'" Elridge said.

Over the next 21 months, that generation has a chance to flex its muscles in ways not seen in decades: to help decide the election of Kentucky's governor as well as help pick the new president.

Traditionally, the youngest generation of voters has established itself as the least likely to show up at the polls to vote.

In Kentucky's 2003 general election for governor, just 17.4 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds showed up to vote -- less than half of the participation rate of the overall population. In last fall's election, turnout of that age group was as low as 4 percent in such counties as Boone and Campbell.

This column will periodically check in to see how the newest generation of voters is getting involved, and what the under-35 crowd envisions as solutions to some of the problems facing them, such as:

 Paying for college. As Gov. Ernie Fletcher noted recently, tuition has increased 145 percent in 10 years. And many recent graduates are still paying off student loans.

"We need to lower tuition. We need more opportunities for scholarships and more opportunities for work-study programs," said Johnathon Boles, the speaker of WKU's student senate.

 Health insurance. The candidates for governor in both parties have promised to unveil platforms related to the issue, while other states, such as Massachusetts and California, have moved forward with new approaches.

In the meantime, Johnson, the WKU student body president, said state lawmakers should look at ways to increase competition among health insurance companies in Kentucky.

 Retirement. It's not exactly an immediate concern for those in their first or second jobs, but few if any in the newest generation of workers believe that when they retire, Social Security will exist in anything remotely resembling its current form.

"As of now? No," said Sherman Sparrow of Louisville, a freshman at Kentucky State University. "I don't think I can find anyone who would say yes to that."

 The environment. Global warming, energy efficiency and curbing practices that have lasting effects on the landscape, such as mountaintop removal mining, remain high on the generation's radar.

Other broad issues, such as affordable housing, job creation and an overall better education system, should be debated as well, the young activists say.

And the solutions should transcend party politics, many of them often add.

"I'm of the opinion that a good idea is a good idea," said Elridge, "no matter whether it's from a Democrat or a Republican."