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Young people make their presence known in Washington County's local politics

COURTESY PHOTO - Portland Community College Board member Alexander Días Rios hopes to inspire other young people to become politically active.For years, the adage has been that politics is for the older and wiser. But increasingly, young people across Washington County are getting involved in local governments, taking publicly-elected seats and pushing for a voice in the community.

In the last year alone, the county has seen a swell of young people running for public office. Race winners — all in their mid-20s — include Metro Councilor Juan Carlos González, Hillsboro School Board member See Eun Kim, Tigard-Tualatin School Board member Ben Bowman and Portland Community College Board member Alexander Díaz Rios. In Forest Grove, high school student Solomon Clapshaw mounted an unsuccessful run for city council.

Each ran on progressive platforms that called on providing a voice for young people, who have felt silenced in politics for years.

But are these wins enough to say a new, youthful trend in politics is beginning in Washington County? According to Jim Moore, director of political outreach at Pacific University, a significant shift may still be some elections away.

"From my perspective, I love that young people are running and winning elections, but until young people start voting at the same rate as people in older demographics … I continue to wait for the revolution," Moore said with a half-chuckle.

The movement isn't unprecedented. Moore notes the shift is somewhat akin to the election years immediately following 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18. However, the political uprising that occurred in 1972, 1974 and 1976 trumps modern times by possessing equal parts public interest and action, he said.

Back then, young people voted as much as they ran for office, something Moore said is necessary for a youthful revolution in politics to come to fruition.

"When you look at Oregon in 2016, 18- to 29-year-olds were about 20% of the total population of the state but they only voted as 15% of all voters," he said.

That's drastically different from older generations, Moore said. Voters age 45 to 64 made up less than one-third of the population, Moore said, but accounted for 37% of all voters.

"They were 4.4% up," he said, "and this is a pretty common pattern."

Díaz Rios, Portland Community College's youngest ever board member, ran unopposed for the seat this spring. He said change has to start somewhere, whether that be the halls of Hillsboro High School or the steps of the state capitol in Salem.

"There's no better time than now — as we're seeing this shift in politics or at least an opportunity for one — to get involved," he said. "When people become [politically] engaged at a young age, I believe it often transfers to them remaining engaged for the rest of their lives."

Díaz Rios said politicians currently in office should pay close attention to the concerns and interests of young voters. Discussing issues that pique their interest — such as climate change, student loan debt and affordable housing — might in turn spark a larger youth-voter turnout, Moore and Díaz Rios said.

"To me, the biggest change is if the younger demographic votes, and then their issues can become the central issues of the political system," Moore said.

A real revolution

Only time will tell if the current string of young elected officials proves to be the start of a genuine trend, but several high school students — many of them too young to run for office yet — have started getting involved in their local governments.

And those governments are listening.

Hillsboro's Youth Advisory Commission has been making waves with the success of their Sustainable Shopping Initiative, a ban on plastic bags in Hillsboro that went into effect this summer. The ban was researched by the commission, which is made of high school-aged Hillsboro residents who proposed the idea to the Hillsboro City Council. Its passage caught the eye of state Rep. Janeen Sollman, who spearheaded a similar state-wide bill in Salem.

Gov. Kate Brown made the bill into law last this month, banning plastic bags in Oregon starting in 2021.

"Environmental issues impact youth more than any other age group, because we're the ones who have to inherit it," said YAC member Ryan Smith, 16, an incoming senior at Glencoe High School. "But we have the least amount of power in the political system. We can't vote. But to have a voice in a policy that's going to impact our future is incredible."

This year, the city of Tigard just introduced its first youth city council member, incoming Tigard High School senior Meghan Turley, who began her year-long term July 9. Though ineligible to vote on city matters, the youth councilor has a seat at the same table as any other city councilor and participates in discussions on issues impacting the city.

"We wanted to ensure we're giving the youth in our community a voice," Tigard Mayor Jason Snider said about the non-voting position. "It really comes down to young people making up such a large part of our city's residents. They deserve to have a say in the decisions we make for this area just as much as anyone else."

Prior to joining the board, Turley herself worked as an intern for the newly-elected Bowman, who ousted former school board member Terri Burnette in May.

"I plan to represent Tigard youth by being as engaged with them as possible," Turley wrote on her application for the position. "This means attending not only community events, but also events on a high school, middle school and elementary school level, and listening to what my peers have to say about the state of our city."

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