Politics: Five Rising Stars Age 25 and Under
It's been a big week for lists in Washington. Controversy surrounding the now-defunct liberal listserv, JournoList, continued to rage from the blogosphere to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Meanwhile, Politico released a list of the top 50 politicians to watch.
In keeping with that theme, here's a look at five up-and-comers who have yet to reach their 26th birthdays. If you haven't heard of them yet, you may soon.
Alejandra Salinas, 19, College Democrats of America
In 2006, at the height of a pitched battle surrounding illegal immigration, Alejandra Salinas organized a walkout at her predominantly Hispanic high school. Four years later, with immigration issues again at the fore, Salinas is poised to become the first Hispanic president of the College Democrats of America and its youngest leader in some time. She currently serves as the chairwoman of CDA's Hispanic Caucus. The 19-year-old rising junior at the University of Texas in Austin is running for the position unopposed on a platform of increased openness and accessibility.
"I live in a border town, and the immigration issue was coming up, but for some reason it wasn't being talked about in a place that's 98 percent Hispanic," Salinas said. "I thought it was my duty to say something, and when I started organizing ... I had never felt that excited, that passionate before. It was the feeling that, 'I want to do this the rest of my life, and I'll wake up happy every single day.' And that's how I got into politics."
Salinas's running mate, 29-year old Carnegie Mellon graduate student Joe Day, is 10 years older than she is, but Salinas tops the ticket in part because of her relationship with the Democratic National Committee in Washington. She interned in the offices of the chairman and the executive director there last summer. Salinas cited her experiences with College Democrats and with the DNC as helping her become both passionate and politically proactive.
"This organization opened my eyes to the power of youth organizing," she said. "When I organized the walkout in 2006, I felt like it was hard to have a voice as a young person in my community. But through College Democrats, I learned that it's okay for someone who's my age to be politically active, to have a voice, to make a difference."
"I love Texas, and it's really important for me to go back home to do what I can to help," Salinas said. "A lot of people want to go to D.C., make a name for themselves there, but for me, it's much more important to go home to fix things there."
That doesn't mean that Salinas is ruling out Washington completely, though her short-term goals center on law school and possibly an MBA.
"I want to come back and be a lawyer, and I don't think you need to be a congresswoman or mayor or governor to have an impact," Salinas said. "But if the opportunity opens up to run for mayor, for statehouse, for Congress, and if it's at the right time, then I would absolutely run."
Bakari Sellers, 25, South Carolina State Legislature
Bakari Sellers was barely old enough to drink when he beat a 26-year incumbent for a spot in the South Carolina state legislature in 2006. Sellers, now 25, is currently the youngest African American elected official in the country. He is running unopposed for his third term and works as a lawyer when the legislature is out of session. This former student body president of Morehouse College also served on President Barack Obama's South Carolina steering committee during the 2008 election. Like Obama, Sellers ran his own campaign on a platform of change.
"It was an urge I had, because my community wasn't growing, and it's my home and I wanted to give back to the people who'd given me so much," he said. "If not me, then who? If not now, when? We worked really hard and were able to pull off what many people said was not only improbable, but impossible."
Sellers said he uses his age to his advantage.
"When you're young, you have energy, and there's a certain part of us that thinks we're invincible," he said. "That helps give you that confidence to try, and if you get knocked down, to get back up again."
He's focused on legislative initiatives like a school lunch program that combats childhood obesity and a ban on texting while driving. Sellers, who represents the rural 90th district of South Carolina, said that for the moment, he's not thinking beyond his constituents and their needs.
"The governor does have a nice house, though," he added with a laugh.
Dylan Matthews, 20, The Washington Post
Read the blog of Washington Post celebrity Ezra Klein and you can't miss the work of his assistant, Dylan Matthews. Matthews is a rising Harvard junior, and like his boss, he has had a meteoric rise through the political blogosphere. At 14, Matthews started his own blog, at 16 he was freelancing for Slate, at 18 he worked at The American Prospect, and at 19 he signed on with Klein. Matthews guest-blogs and researches for Klein and also helps him produce Wonkbook, which is a left-leaning, more economically-focused version of Mike Allen's Politico Playbook. At the age of 20, Matthews has access to a national audience with whom he shares his views on complex, high-level policy matters.
"It's a tricky border to walk, but you have to have an appropriate humility about what you can do and yet have the confidence that if you have a smart point to make, to make it regardless of experience," he said.
Matthews said that a host of other bloggers, including Klein, have set a precedent for youthful representation in political discourse.
"People have acknowledged that young people, like Ezra or [blogger at Center for American Progress] Matt Yglesias, can do useful writing, or in Ezra's case, reporting, even if they haven't cut their teeth at the metro desk for 10 years, although that's incredibly useful as well," Matthews said.
"Part of what's so exciting about all this is I have no idea what kinds of jobs will be possible for me to have in 10 years," he said. "I hope to be in a position to explain policy and make it accessible to the public while being able to articulately argue for ones I think are right. Reporters our age, we have it really tough in a lot of ways, but people who do get in are in an environment of radical experimentation and new models of doing things. That's really exhilarating."
Guy Benson, 25, Talk Show Host and Political Blogger
It's been a tumultuous week in political journalism, from the echoes of JournoList to the Andrew Breitbart-Shirley Sherrod controversy, and Guy Benson, 25, is in the thick of it all. As the youngest big-market political talk show host in America, Benson is also a commentator on conservative sites like Breitbart's Big Journalism -- a post of Benson's about the Sherrod incident drew the ire of the progressive Media Matters for America Wednesday. A graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Benson is currently based in Chicago, where he also blogs for National Review and Breitbart's other sites, Big Hollywood and Big Government. Come September, he said he is moving to D.C. to serve as the new political editor for the conservative site Townhall.com.
"Conservative principles are the best thing for the country and since I'm young and, God willing, am going to be living in this country for decades to come, I have an even greater incentive to fight for the country's future," he said.
Benson acquired his own show at the age of 22 after a manager at the Chicago station read a profile of the aspiring journalist in Northwestern's alumni magazine. Impressed with Benson's track record of three summers at Fox News, a summer in the Bush White House and experience co-hosting a political talk show at Northwestern, the manager offered him a job and, within months, his own show. Benson said he was considerably younger than most people with whom he worked, so he tried to strike a balance between knowing his place and asserting himself.
"I want to be treated seriously and professionally, but I also understand that, hey, I am pretty young," he said. "It's a balance of being professional and not being afraid to showcase some talent, but also being respectful, open to learning and paying your dues. Part of it is not taking yourself too seriously and not taking things too personally."
Inside Washington's Beltway, for Townhall.com. But Benson said he is also exploring whether he can continue doing his radio show from D.C. He will continue to guest-host for prominent conservative Hugh Hewitt, whose radio show is nationally syndicated.
*Disclosure: this Politics Daily writer also attends Medill and has written for Northwestern's alumni publication.
John Kleinhans, 20, Vermont Politics
When John Kleinhans fidgets with his BlackBerry in class, it's possible that he's checking Facebook. But it's more likely that he's texting with Vermont state representatives, some of whom he taught how to text in the first place. Kleinhans is barely an upperclassman at Vermont's Lyndon State College -- he'll be a junior this fall -- but he is already a significant presence in the Vermont Republican Party. He's spending the summer working as the campaign coordinator for Mark Snelling, a candidate for lieutenant governor. In that capacity, Kleinhans is with Snelling around the clock, doing a little of everything -- prepping the candidate for interviews, driving, sitting in on editorial meetings, working on strategy, and more. The two met on the campaign trail last fall, during Kleinhans's unsuccessful run for secretary of the Vermont Republican Party Executive Board.
"I saw him on the campaign trail a bunch and we got to talking," Kleinhans said. "It was a perfect fit. I think he respected my work for the College Republicans, which is how I wound up where I am."
In his freshman year of college, Kleinhans became the country's youngest state chairman of the College Republicans. Under his leadership, the Vermont College Republicans went from a membership of five to around 150 active students, Kleinhans said. He's also been named one of the top 12 college Republicans in the country by the College Republican National Committee, an organization for which he serves as Northeastern regional vice chairman. And in his spare time, Kleinhans is student body president of Lyndon College.
"All young people should be involved in politics because it's our future that people are deciding," Kleinhans said. "It's also a lot of fun. You can connect with leaders across the country, you can go and have conversations with the governor, the lieutenant governor, and they actually listen to you."
"In the direct future, I'm contemplating a run for chairman of the CRNC (College Republican National Committee) -- that's still in the very beginning thinking process, but we're working on it," he said. "I also plan to go to law school. At some point I may try to seek public office, but I love what I'm doing right now. I'm having a lot of fun."