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Pew Charitable Trusts says only 3 percent of Oregon legislators are 18 to 34.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Baby boomers still dominate Oregon politics, even as millennials move up through the ranks of the Legislature and local government. In the state where “young people go to retire” — as depicted in IFC’s comedy "Portlandia" — baby boomers hold the power.

Millennials, ages 18 to 34, represent only 3 percent of seats in the Legislature, while they make up 29 percent of the voting-eligible population, according to a survey by Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Baby boomers, ages 51 to 69, make up less than one-third of Oregon’s potential voters yet hold more than half of legislative seats.

The survey found a similar disparity in state legislatures around the nation.

The imbalance might be “tilting policymaking toward the interests of seniors and away from the country’s largest living generation: millennials,” wrote Stateline’s Rebecca Beitsch.

Oregon’s handful of legislators who are 35 and younger think the political tilt toward seniors is a reality.

“Young people simply don’t vote as frequently as senior citizens, and that is what skews political outcomes far more than the age of legislators,” said Rep. Brent Barton, a 35-year-old Democrat from Oregon City.

Climate change and higher education are “two examples of issues where seniors and millennials weigh issues differently,” Barton said. “I am certain that climate change and higher education would receive more policy attention if young people voted more.”

At 30, Rep. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, is the youngest legislator in Salem.

Heard sought election after struggling with state regulations to kick off his landscape consulting business in Douglas County. He said policymakers often enact regulations that make it harder for young people to start businesses and careers.

“The older generation is already in place in their businesses or endeavors so when they vote for more policy that hinders young people, they don’t understand that regulation is getting so thick and heavy and onerous that it is shutting down my generation and people younger than me from even getting started,” Heard said.

Millennials also are at a stage in life when they might be establishing careers, paying off student debt and raising children.

Life changes

Barton’s life might epitomize some of the challenges millennials face in getting representation in Salem.

After three terms, Barton announced in August he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2016 so he can spend more time with his family after the birth of his first child.

“I do not feel it is fair to my family, my clients or my constituents to juggle so many responsibilities, and my family must come first,” Barton wrote.

Young people’s underrepresentation is worse than it was in the 1970s, said Jim Moore, politics professor at Pacific University and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation.

In 1975, 17 percent of state representatives were baby boomers, who were then 24 to 29. There was only one baby boomer in the Senate, Moore said.

“Boomers were seeing that young people could cause political change,” he said.

The Watergate scandal “showed younger people that they needed to be involved to prevent the kind of corruption they saw at the national level,” Moore said. “Throw in the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movements, and there were a host of issues that drew younger people into politics.”

Millennials also have started families and businesses later than baby boomers did.

“Millennials will enter politics, just a bit later than the boomers did,” Moore said.

By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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