Editor's note: This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.
COLUMBIA — In late September, Stephen Webber, 29, Missouri state representative for the 23rd District, spoke to an MU freshmen group about politics. There were about 30 people in the room, all young, starting college and passionate about politics.
Webber instructed them: “Raise your hand if you can name the two people running for Congress in our district.” One student out of 30 raised her hand to name Democrat Teresa Hensley and Republican Vicky Hartzler, candidates for Missouri’s 4th Congressional District.
Webber was disappointed.
“The honest truth — and this is not good to say, but it’s a fact — is that young people are not involved in the politics and don’t care about it the way they should,” he said. “You want to say things like they’re concerned about college loans, but the truth is they’re not because they don’t even know who’s running for office.
“As bad as the job market has been, our generation has not stepped up and met the challenge of becoming actively involved and engaged in politics the way we should.”
This campaign season, Stephen Webber and Caleb Rowden are in a unique position to reflect on the millennial generation and the tough job of representing it. They were the only twenty-something candidates in state legislative races concerning Columbia — until Monday, when Rowden turned 30.
Caleb Rowden is running as a Republican for the 44th District seat in the Missouri House of Representatives. Rowden is in his first political race. He’s not your “typical political candidate” — a claim restated by his campaign, his background and the backpack he usually wears.
Rowden spent most of his adult life as a Christian musician touring the nation. He then became a pastor at the Christian Chapel in Columbia and launched a media and marketing agency, Clarius Interactive. He’s married and has a baby boy on the way.
Webber, a Democrat, was first elected as a state representative in 2008 and re-elected in 2010. This year, because of redistricting, he is running for the new 46th District, after representing the 23rd District the past four years.
Before running for office, Webber served two terms in Iraq. He enlisted in the Marine Corps as a sophomore at St. Louis University, served eight months, came back, got his degree in economics and volunteered to go again.
“I thought (the war) was a terrible idea and I was against it, but I thought that if our country decided to do it, then I should be part of it,” he says.
Seeking credibility with older voters
Rowden has been doing a lot of research in the past months to prepare for the job. He talked to people of different backgrounds and occupations: farmers, white-collar and blue-collar workers, businessmen, stay-at-home moms. He’s doing it the old-fashioned way: So far, he estimates he’s knocked on more than 5,000 doors.
But there’s another reason for all this legwork: building credibility with older voters.
“I worked as hard as I could to make sure that we’re talking to those that are 60, 70, whatever,” he says. “There are a lot of those that age that are voters, and I don’t want them to look at me as this kid who is just running for fun.
“I’m 29, and maybe I look 29, maybe I don’t, but people look at me and they’re like, ‘Wow, can this kid even drive himself to the event?’” Rowden says. “So you got to work through that.”
The first year in office, Webber got teased a lot about being an intern. A couple of times before meetings he was asked to leave the room. At 25, he was the youngest state representative. He might again be the youngest if he gets re-elected. “But after four years, I’ve been there longer than over half the people in the House now,” he said.
Webber believes that what got him elected in the first place — he was 24 through most of the campaign — was a combination of him growing up in Columbia and being a war veteran. Also, in 2008, when Barack Obama ran for president, there was this “new politics vibe” across the country, which was easy to tap into as a young candidate.
A generation disconnected from politics
As a generation, Rowden and Webber would be tagged as millennials — people born between 1980 and 2000, give or take a few years. But that doesn’t make representing people their age or younger any easier.
In many respects, they are exceptions.
A couple of months ago, there was an opening for the position of county commissioner. Webber met with three or four friends about his age, professionals whom he respected, and tried to convince them to run for office.
“Every single one of them told me, ‘You know, I just don’t know if I want to be in Columbia four years from now,’” he says. “And that surprises me. That concerns me. As a Columbia citizen, I think we got to find ways to keep people like that around.”
In general, young people are more socially progressive — they lack some of the stereotypes and hostilities of older generations — fiscally conservative and concerned about jobs, Webber said.
“They want to talk about issues. They don’t really care about the party,” Rowden says. “That’s why you see a lot of young people that supported Ron Paul, because the guy just got up there and said what he believed, and that resonated with people.”
Young people tend to be concerned about the future, the mounting national debt, jobs and health care, Rowden said. He sometimes finds himself having to defend an unpopular position among youth: that the Affordable Care Act is unsustainable.
“I try to say it in a way that it doesn’t alienate people, it doesn’t feel like they’re disrespected,” Rowden says.
Rowden himself was uninsured for a few years after he turned 18 and recalls that period as “a little bit scary.” He agrees with the part of the Affordable Care Act that allows children to stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26. He’s generally against the Affordable Care Act because of the extra costs it would bring to small businesses and the federal budget.
Some youth follow the issues and do their own research, but some don’t. “So you’re talking to different levels of understanding of what’s going on,” Rowden said.
After four years in office, Webber is more categorical about young people’s involvement. Even if they say they care about jobs and college loans, as long as they don’t know who’s running for office, let alone the candidates’ takes on these issues, they don’t care enough, he said.
“Things are pretty darn good in America. Even when they’re bad, they’re pretty darn good,” he says. “For young people in Columbia, the bars are still packed every night, they’re still building luxury housing here. If you didn’t read the paper, driving around town you would not know that there was really a recession going on. And so young people have not gotten involved the way they should.”
Thus, politicians raise money to buy advertising and build name reputation, so that when people go in to vote they will choose a familiar name, he said.
But there are also those in Columbia who are very engaged politically, Webber said. He wants them to be happy with his work.
“And you got to work real hard for the people that will never know you’re working for them,” he says. “It’s just the right thing to do.”
In the past months, Rowden has sometimes been overwhelmed and fearful. But he said it’s part of the journey, and the opportunity to follow a dream such as this is one of the great things about this country.
“I think as long as we have these opportunities,” Rowden says, “I think we’ll be alright.”
Supervising editor is Tom Warhover.