LEWISTON — In a state increasingly haunted by its ever-aging population and national notoriety for being the oldest state in America, voters in Androscoggin County have sent three people to the state Senate this year who are all younger than 30.
At 26, Eric Brakey, an Auburn Republican and a freshman to the Legislature, will hold the title of the Senate’s youngest lawmaker when he’s sworn in. But also there is Nathan Libby, a 29-year-old Lewiston Democrat, and state Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, who is also 29. Libby, who is also a Lewiston city councilor, is moving from his seat in the House of Representatives.
Mason was 25 when he was first elected to the state Senate; Libby was 26.
Each is well below the average age of 56 for all state lawmakers in the U.S. They are among an elite group of young lawmakers who make up only 3.8 percent of the about 7,800 people who are elected to serve in the 50 legislatures across the country, according to data available with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
And while Brakey is far from the youngest state lawmaker in the U.S. elected in 2014 — that title goes to Saira Blair, an 18-year-old Republican who was elected to the House of Delegates in West Virginia earlier this month — he remains one of the youngest state senators in the country.
“It’s kind of interesting, as far as young people go, it’s not like it’s just one record we are breaking here or there,” Brakey said. “It seems like we are breaking them all over the place, as far as young people coming into leadership.”
Brakey said it’s been a continuing trend for Republicans and young conservatives, not only in Maine but around the U.S., who were swept into public office in the last election cycle — dubbed a Republican tornado by some pundits.
“For me and a lot of the young people I talk to who are getting involved, there’s a sense of all the debt, all the spending and all these problems that our generation is inheriting,” Brakey said. “I think that’s encouraged a lot more young people to step up to the plate and try to really take control of our future, that’s been a big motivating factor for me.”
Libby said the challenges facing young people in Maine, including finding decent work and getting an affordable education, has made them more interested in politics and more interested in electing people who can relate to their needs and concerns.
“Clearly young people in Maine have significant challenges, and first and foremost is finding good-quality jobs when they graduate from high school or graduate from college,” Libby said.
Libby said he’s very concerned about the student debt many young Mainers are faced with, and said it’s a key issue for his generation. “It’s hampering young people’s ability to purchase new automobiles and purchase homes and a lot of young people are putting off those big investments because of the constraints of student debt.”
Brakey and Libby seem to agree that countering the loss of Maine’s young people will depend on creating more and better-paying jobs. Brakey suggested one way to protect and grow industry is to lower dramatically the costs of energy in the state, which many see as integral to growing industry.
Androscoggin County, with a median age of 40.6 years, is Maine’s youngest county — the statewide median is 43.5 years, according to the most current data available from the U.S. Census.
And while Brakey, Mason and Libby will lower the average age of Maine’s Senate — it’s 61 years old — the state has a bigger problem on its hands in that out migration of youth in Maine is not being made up for by new births or by the growing immigrant populations of Lewiston and Portland.
Instead, the outlook for Maine employers looking for workers and governments looking for taxpayers is approaching a critical breaking point, according to economists and others who study Maine demographics. According to some estimates, the state needs a minimum of at least 60,000 new Mainers over the next 20 years if it has any hope of maintaining its current population.
James Tierney, a former Maine legislator and Maine attorney general who teaches law at Columbia University in New York City, said he thinks most policymakers in Maine are simply asking the wrong questions.
Tierney said Maine’s population problem lies not only in its increasing age but more importantly in its lack of diversity and the state’s unwillingness to fully encourage more immigrants to relocate here.
Based on national statistics and Census Bureau data, the state is not only the oldest in the nation, it is also the whitest, comprising 96 percent of the population.
Tierney said the conclusion that race, not age, is a more important factor when it comes to growing Maine’s population was not an easy one to come to.
But during a presentation at Bates College in October, Tierney said the truth was in the numbers and was overwhelmingly apparent to him that Maine’s developing age problem is a function of too little diversity.
In email messages to the Sun Journal on Tuesday, Tierney reiterated his views.
“Maine needs more young people,” Tierney wrote. “We cannot birth our way out of the problem. Even if everyone stayed in Maine, which is unrealistic, we will need to bring people into Maine, and when they come and wherever they come from, the chances that they will be white are going down. We are 96 percent white (in Maine), and the rest of the country is 64 percent white. It is just a matter of math.”
Tierney said efforts to keep Maine’s youth in the state will not be enough, and that actively recruiting young immigrants will be the only option to save the state from the so-called “demographic winter” it is facing.
Tierney said young policymakers such as Brakey and Libby need to embrace the idea that Maine needs to dramatically change its ethnic and racial makeup to thrive in the years ahead. He said politicians can and will debate, “(cutting) red tape and energy costs” and the costs of higher education.
He said efforts to reduce energy costs and red tape are still noble and worthwhile and “good things, assuming that the Legislature can do it — (but) it still does not reverse the decline because current jobs are already going unfilled. These steps are so small they will not — indeed, cannot — reverse the existing and dramatic demographic changes. This isn’t about politics or elections or programs. It is about numbers.”