Young voters earn spots as delegates

Monday, July 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:29 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

WASHINGTON — When it’s your first presidential election, it’s not enough that you can vote. Not when you want in on the process. Not when you want your voice heard.

Three young Missourians jumped into politics last February, setting out on a daunting path to becoming delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Sarah Langfellner, 19, remembers the reaction to her age when she spoke to the state Democratic convention: “There was a group of women in the audience that gasped.”

She won a slot as one of 16 at-large delegates.

“I had a little bit of an edge, because there were so few young candidates,” said Langfellner, an education major at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. Natalie Hunter, 23, needed that edge, because she realized too late that her rivals for a delegate slot were actively campaigning for the job.

“I started getting all this stuff sent to my house, all these fliers; I went to the district convention, and everyone had buttons and was handing out passcards,” she said. “Then I realized there was no way I was going to get the position.”

But she did, by making a speech that moved some to tears. It was about the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, whose memory is revered by Democratic Party faithful. Hunter told how, at age 7, she wrote nametags and collected campaign cash at a Carnahan fund-raiser.

“After it was over, he sat down beside me and thanked me for coming, and told me how much he appreciated my help,” she said. “People that had given him money were coming up to talk to him; he said, ‘I’ll be right with you.’

“I said, ‘I don’t know what he does or who he is, but I want to be just like him when I grow up,”’ Hunter said.

Hunter, who is from New Madrid in southeast Missouri, interned in Washington for Carnahan’s widow, Jean, who became senator after the governor died in a 2000 plane crash and won a special election. Hunter is now working on an Arkansas congressional campaign.

Youth wasn’t an advantage, at least not at first, for Missouri’s youngest delegate, 18-year-old Nate Hinchey of Jackson. Hinchey, then still in high school, wound up tied with another candidate at the congressional district convention, then won the tie-breaking ballot.

“On the original election, a lot of people didn’t support me til they realized other people were; you could tell they were looking around thinking, ‘Do we want to put a kid on the delegation?”’ said Hinchey, who will start his freshman year at Boston College in the fall.

“I think a lot of them, when they saw I had some support from people, actually decided they could trust me,” Hinchey said. Jessica Post, 24, knew enough about the process to do a little campaigning; she made fliers with the Post cereal logo and a theme: “Familiar face, new ideas.”

“I think because of that, I got a really good response,” said Post, a political consultant in Ellisville in suburban St. Louis. “I definitely think it was an advantage to be younger.”

The process of becoming a delegate is daunting to young people and other first-timers. It’s so complex, the state party has a 34-page guide to the system of local, state and congressional district caucuses and conventions that began with the February presidential primary. Once they are elected, delegates pay their own way to the convention.

“I think a lot of them don’t even try, because they know it is cost-prohibitive, and they have summer jobs or have to head back to school,” said May Scheve Reardon, chairwoman of the Missouri Democratic Party.

But the party establishment is happy to have them, Reardon said: “This party needs to have an injection of young people, not only for their energy and excitement, but also for their commitment.

“I hope we’re able to live up to their expectations, and exceed their expectations,” she added.

More than two-thirds of Missouri’s 88 Democratic convention delegates have never served as delegates before. Still, most of the delegation is 45 and older. Baby boomers — those ages 40-58 — dominate the convention.

Four delegates are between the ages of 18 and 24.

Among delegates to the Republican National Convention, Missouri has two in that category, according to the state GOP.

Dutch Newman, a Kansas City retiree, has been a delegate to every Democratic convention since 1968. She likes that young people are involved.

“We’ve got to have somebody to take care of us pretty soon,” she said. “I don’t think they have the knowledge that we have, but that’s why I think we should get together. They’ll do the legwork. We’ll do the thinking.”

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