Kansas youths take on adults in heart­land state

Kuwait Times - - Analysis -

With loose khaki pants, a but­ton-down shirt and a dark blue blazer, Tyler Ruzich looks a lot like any num­ber of as­pir­ing politi­cians be­fore him. But if the elec­tion Ruzich is run­ning in were to be held to­day, he’d be too young to vote for him­self. The 17-yearold is one of five teens throw­ing their hats in the crowded ring for next year’s gover­nor’s race in Kansas, which has per­mis­sive rules about who can run for the state’s top elected post.

Speak­ing re­cently to a crowd of stu­dents at a high school gym in the city of Lawrence, Ruzich picked up a mi­cro­phone and launched into his cam­paign speech. “It’s pretty clear that our politi­cians have ne­glected us,” Ruzich said, com­pet­ing to be heard over the clangs of a nearby weightlift­ing room. Next to him were three other teen gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates. In this ge­o­graph­i­cal cen­ter of the con­ti­nen­tal United States - af­fec­tion­ately called Amer­ica’s Heart­land - the teenagers vy­ing for the gover­nor’s of­fice are in­ject­ing youth­ful am­bi­tion into the 2018 elec­tion cy­cle.

Em­bold­ened by the Trump era, where any­thing seems pos­si­ble in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, the teens are chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo in a deeply Repub­li­can state. “I view this as re­ally an im­por­tant op­por­tu­nity to get younger peo­ple in­volved,” Ruzich, a Repub­li­can, told AFP. The teenage can­di­dates are tak­ing ad­van­tage of the fact that Kansas has no age re­stric­tions on who can run for gover­nor - one can­di­date even jok­ingly sug­gested that a dog could get on the bal­lot. The only other state with such per­mis­sive elec­tion laws, sparsely pop­u­lated Ver­mont, in the north­east, has a 13-year-old gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date.

Peo­ple are ‘fed up’

Jack Berge­son, 16, was the first Kansas teen to file elec­tion pa­pers in the spring of 2016. The nov­elty of it landed him on a national late-night talk show and drew the at­ten­tion of news me­dia. By this sum­mer, 17-year-olds Ruzich and Ethan Ran­dleas had joined the race; Do­minic Scavuzzo an­nounced his can­di­dacy in the fall. And last week, 16-year-old Joseph Tutera Jr be­came the lat­est teen to seek the state’s high­est of­fice. “It’s an over­all good thing. Peo­ple are show­ing that the younger gen­er­a­tion is here to make an im­pact,” Berge­son told AFP.

The young men - no girls have joined in - are hop­ing to tap into the anti-es­tab­lish­ment fer­vor cours­ing through Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and roil­ing the Repub­li­can Party. In­cum­bents are fac­ing un­ex­pected chal­lenges in next year’s midterm elec­tions from out­siders em­bold­ened by Don­ald Trump’s rhetoric and his sur­prise pres­i­den­tial vic­tory. “I’m not nec­es­sar­ily a sup­porter of the pres­i­dent, but he has showed that peo­ple are fed up with the es­tab­lish­ment,” Berge­son said.

The teens hope to in­spire younger peo­ple to regis­ter to vote. Of the five, only Berge­son is a Demo­crat. The other four are Repub­li­cans in a state Trump won by more than 20 points. And like Trump, the five are will­ing to buck their re­spec­tive par­ties. Ruzich would raise busi­ness taxes - anath­ema to true-be­liever Repub­li­cans. Berge­son would raise taxes, too. And, all five teens would le­gal­ize marijuana. ‘Un­cer­tain race’

The young can­di­dates’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in the gu­ber­na­to­rial race has been a spec­ta­cle, but it could have real im­pact. Stu­dents at the high school cam­paign event said they were in­spired. “It was re­ally cool to see some­one closer to my age ac­tu­ally up there talk­ing about th­ese po­lit­i­cal is­sues,” 17-year-old Josh Mor­ris said. More sig­nif­i­cantly, the teens’ pres­ence on the bal­lot could af­fect adult can­di­dates, said Bur­dett Loomis, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Kansas. “It’s a hugely open and un­cer­tain race,” Loomis said, adding that the teens could drain votes from older can­di­dates.

The adults might just want to pay at­ten­tion; there is prece­dent for teens win­ning elected of­fice in the US. Saira Blair, aged 17 when she ran in 2014 for a seat in the West Vir­ginia state leg­is­la­ture, be­came the youngest per­son ever elected to state or fed­eral of­fice, de­feat­ing an in­cum­bent in her own Repub­li­can Party. The Kansas teens’ can­di­da­cies led one adult gu­ber­na­to­rial con­tender to sug­gest chang­ing the law. “I think it’s both amus­ing and en­cour­ag­ing that high school stu­dents are throw­ing their name into the gover­nor’s race,” Kris Kobach told the Kansas City Star news­pa­per in Septem­ber.

“But it is ap­pro­pri­ate to have min­i­mum ages for the gover­nor’s of­fice,” said Kobach, who as Kansas sec­re­tary of state is in charge of ad­min­is­ter­ing elec­tions - and who also is head­ing Trump’s con­tro­ver­sial com­mis­sion in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­leged voter fraud. Many of the teen can­di­dates ac­knowl­edge their age is a bar­rier. “Peo­ple don’t think I’m quite ex­pe­ri­enced,” Scavuzzo told AFP, “but to win this elec­tion isn’t nec­es­sar­ily win­ning the gov­er­nor­ship.” Get­ting young peo­ple more in­volved in pol­i­tics, he added, would be a vic­tory in it­self.

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