Republicans, Democrats Want To See A Younger N.H. State House Next Session

Oct 9, 2018

Safiya Wazir stands next to her "campaign headquarters," a box filled with fliers and a canvassing list. Wazir faces Republican Dennis Soucy for the District 17 seat.
Credit Daniela Allee / NHPR

It’s a cloudy Friday, and Safiya Wazir is walking through her Concord Heights neighborhood.

This neighborhood is a mix of older people, young, working families, new immigrants and long-time residents. She’s knocking on doors and leaving behind fliers that say she’ll help bring a new generation to the New Hampshire State House.

New Hampshire has one of the oldest legislatures in the country. In the last legislative session, the average age of a New Hampshire lawmaker was 66. But in this midterm, Republicans and Democrats are looking to change that.

This is Wazir’s first time running for political office. She wants to be a state representative.

Wazir approaches the side door of a brown, two-story home. She doesn’t even have to knock. Bob Silva’s already opened the door.

“I’m glad to see you. Congratulations!” he said.

Wazir won the Democratic primary by a two-to-one margin over a well-known incumbent. It wasn’t a win she, or even some supporters, like the Silvas, were necessarily expecting.

But her win thrilled Barbara Silva, who’s in her early 80s.

“She’s young. She has a lot of energy, and the things that were important to her are important to me. Family, a good neighborhood, no crime,” Silva said.

Wazir’s 27. She’s a mom to two daughters and pregnant with her third. She’s a relatively new U.S. citizen. She moved to the United States at 16, after 10 years in an Uzbekistan refugee camp. Wazir and her family were fleeing the Taliban, and she remembers the help the family received when they moved to Concord.

Volunteers would drive them to the grocery store or doctors appointments.

“It meant a lot to me,” Wazir said. "It was really something that was touching my heart. I said, 'When I become U.S. citizen, I want to be able to do the same thing.'”

If Wazir wins in November, she says her personal experiences will help her bring attention to issues like paid family medical leave, funding for public schools and equal housing opportunities.

“I want to be the voice of young people because sadly New Hampshire is aging,” she said,  “And we don't have enough of younger people so that I want to show that younger people has the voice to do things in New Hampshire.”

When no one answers the door while she's canvassing, Safiya Wazir leaves this flier and note that says, "I'm sorry I missed you. I hope I can count on your vote on Nov. 6th."
Credit Daniela Allee / NHPR

With 400 state representative seats, it’d seem like there are a lot of opportunities for young people like Wazir to get involved, but that’s not the case.

“We like to say we have a citizen legislature. We do,” said Lucas Meyer, president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats. “But it's a very select citizen legislature when you only get paid $100 to serve or $200 a term to serve.”

Meyer added that it’s a challenge to get people with young families or less flexible jobs to run because of the time commitment they have to make and how little they get paid.

But this election year, both parties are trying to overcome those obstacles to get people under the age of 40 in the legislature. Democrats are fielding 52 of those candidates, and Republicans 47. 

"I just think at the end of the day representation matters."

Joe Sweeney knows what it feels like to be one of just a handful of young people in office. He’s now the chair of the New Hampshire Young Republicans.

“It was tough to be a young representative when there wasn’t a network of young representatives to push our ideas forward,” Sweeney said.  

He was just 19 when he first served as state rep back in 2012.  Colleagues mistook him for an intern until he got his official name badge.

Back then, Sweeney said, there were about 10 other young people in office. So when it came to topics like student debt or bills addressing first-time home buyers, most legislators didn’t fully understand how things have really changed for people in their 20s and 30s.

“Being a 21 or 22 year old in 2018 is very different, if you had that experience back in 1980,” he said. “We have student loan debt that nobody else can really compare to. I know I have about $80,000 after my bachelor’s and master's. But I just think at the end of the day representation matters.”

One candidate Sweeny hopes gets a chance is Virginia Drye. She’s the youngest candidate running for office in New Hampshire.

“I’m 19, a Republican and a woman, and I want to represent that in Concord,” she said.

Virginia Drye, 19, stands with one her yard signs outside of her Plainfield home.
Credit Daniela Allee / NHPR

Drye graduated from high school last year. Now she’s working a part-time job, and she’ll start online classes at Liberty University in January.

She’s running in Sullivan District 1, which is one of the most solidly Democratic districts in the state.

But Drye’s optimistic that if she puts in the work, it might be possible to win, and complete the plan she laid out for herself when she was just 12.

That summer, she went to a camp where she learned about writing bills, and what it takes to get those to pass through a legislature.

“I fell in love with the process, with parliamentary procedure,” Drye said. “I decided I can do this in real life.”

So after a few calculations, she decided the earliest she could pass bills in real life would be 19.

The fact that Drye is staying in New Hampshire makes her a bit unusual among her friends. A number of them have gone out of state for college.

“What they want to do is not in this state.”

Keeping young people in New Hampshire has been a central concern among business leaders, politicians, schools and community leaders.

It’s a big issue to tackle, Drye acknowledges.

But she says, instead of just focusing on getting younger people to stay, why not start with making the state house younger?

 

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