Upcoming Conference | 2019 Re-Wire Policy Conference, Dec 10, 2019 Register

Politics Needs New Blood – And Youth Is No Barrier

Last week, I was honored to address the YMCA Youth Legislature at their opening night session in the Washington State House of Representatives chamber. Now 70 years old, the program has earned a well-deserved reputation as a game-changer for participants. In four days in Olympia, after months of preparation, Washington state high school students took part in elections, law-making, and the art of persuasion and policy-making.

This year’s participants displayed focus, insight, and collaboration. They spoke with strong conviction about the importance of how we behave toward each other in the course of debating and deciding public policy. All these are qualities that our state’s lawmakers possess in abundance, and will be drawing upon as they move toward the endgame this year to reach agreement on the state’s FY 2017-19 budget.

Against this backdrop – of professional legislators in an overtime special session to make difficult, high-stakes decisions that affect every resident of the state – the work of the YMCA Youth Legislature takes on added importance. Here is some of what I shared with the student lawmakers, cabinet officers and media corps when we met in the House.

Every year many good ideas die in the Legislature. Year in, and year out, on average only 20 percent of legislation that gets introduced, makes it through, while 80 percent dies. What does emerge into law is the product of give-and-take. This starts with how we approach one another.

Treat each other with respect. Pretty much no one agrees with another person 100 percent of the time. Often enough, we all disagree on some issues with our parents, siblings and friends. Even with people of your own party you are likely to find disagreements on the best way to solve a problem.

Step back and listen. Find compassion, and whenever you can, compromise. If you belittle people’s ideas or opinions, it’s really unlikely that they’re going to want to work with you on anything now or in the future. Civility is needed in life and in the public arena.

Build coalitions. You think a bill you’re sponsoring is a great idea? You’ve got one vote at the start: your own. To convince both chambers to pass that legislation, you’ve got to convey your message to your colleagues of why it’s a good idea, of why they should be interested and why it’s good for them and their constituents.

Bipartisanship is more than just a word that’s expedient to throw around. We have to actually walk the talk. I was elected State Treasurer in November 2016 – and became the first Republican in this position since 1953. The person I selected as Assistant State Treasurer had previously served as Thurston County’s elected Treasurer. And she is a Democrat. Then I appointed two policy directors, one Republican and one Democrat. The Treasurer’s office on financial matters will work hard to find mutual ground whenever possible.

Modeling respect, learning to listen, and building coalitions to solve problems are all crucial to your success as youth legislators and in much of what you’ll do in life. Another key ingredient is specialization, including mastery of an important topic or policy area.

No one can understand all the complexities of all the bills on which a Legislator must vote. We have to learn to trust each other and rely on the special expertise of our colleagues. So find your niche, find what’s important to you, find what interests you – then do your homework to gain mastery of that field – and you can become very influential.

That’s one reason commitment matters more than age. I’d like to take a moment and share something personal with you that I originally wasn’t going to, but I feel compelled to do this because it deals with youth in government.

During the campaign last year, I lost my wife unexpectedly. When she passed away I decided to pull out of the race for State Treasurer. I was already Benton County Treasurer. I liked that job, and didn’t need to keep pursuing something more in government.

But my youngest daughter Kinzey, who was 17 at the time, who has been a Legislative Page here and was very involved with the student government, came to me and she said, “Dad if you stay in the race – because I think it’s the right thing for you to do – after I graduate from high school in three weeks, I will become your full-time campaign manager, and together we’ll see you through this.”

I was thinking, a 17-year-old campaign manager for a statewide elected position? But how do you tell your daughter no? It turned out that the way she dove into the job was just incredible. She spoke to groups the size of this. She got so involved, it was absolutely amazing to me.

Then she turned 18. After I got elected State Treasurer I had to vacate my position as precinct committee officer, which is the lowest elected position any of us can have in state government. She was appointed to take my place as a PCO in Benton County. I am so proud of her.

So, a lot of time when adults like me stand up here and talk to you we’d like to give you kudos and say “keep up the good work and maybe someday you can aspire to this”. I say, that time might be sooner than you think. We need fresh faces, we need fresh ideas here, we’ve got gridlock and we need you.

Get involved. Run for local office. Sometimes in local elections they have to open up special filing periods to get someone to run for a water district or a sewer district. Local government is the basis for our democracy; there’s no type of government service that can teach you more about how to get things done and serve the public interest.

Without new blood, and fresh thinking, the system we have devised can become sclerotic and dysfunctional. Former French President Charles DeGaulle put it well when he said, “I have come to the conclusion that politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.”

Information is now everywhere, instantly. At the same time, political passions have never run higher. Yet, real insight and effective leadership are often all too rare. We can all embody the change that is so badly needed in our civic discourse, through the ways that we choose to listen, learn and cooperate. For that important reminder, I salute the YMCA Youth Legislature.

These remarks were adapted from Davidson’s May 3rd keynote presentation to the YMCA Youth in Government Opening Ceremonies. Duane Davidson is the 23rd Treasurer of the State of Washington, and a Certified Public Accountant. He grew up on a farm in Carnation, King County, and earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting from Central Washington University, in Ellensburg. He and his late wife Kathy raised three children in the Tri-Cities. Learn more about the work of the State Treasurer’s Office at tre.wa.gov.