Maybe it’s a coincidence, and perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it’s hard not to notice how many leaders in the Arkansas Legislature are in their 30s.
The House last week elected Rep. Jeremy Gilliam, R-Judsonia, 37, as its presumed incoming speaker. He will replace Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot, who is about to turn 39.
On the Senate side, the incoming president pro tem, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, is 34. He will replace Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, 37.
Dismang rose to prominence as an architect of the Medicaid private option, one of Arkansas’ most significant and controversial pieces of legislation in a long time. Other legislative architects were Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, 37, and Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, 28. Meanwhile, House Democrats are led by Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, who is 35.
Why is this happening? In interviews, Gov. Mike Beebe, first elected to the Legislature at the age of 36, and legislators credited term limits for opening up leadership positions to younger people. In Beebe’s day, the Legislature was controlled by a few old-guard legislators who had been there forever. Younger members had to wait their turn.
Could there be other factors in the rise of these whippersnappers? Maybe 30-somethings can thrive in a job that Leding told me “is absolutely exhausting, physically mentally.” Perhaps a young and idealistic legislator is more likely to create and pass an out-of-the-box idea like the private option, and not be discouraged because things haven’t been done that way before. Maybe young people better understand social media and other aspects of contemporary politics. Maybe these legislators entered office at about the same time and formed alliances with people their own age. Dismang said younger legislators may have an extra motivation to excel. After all, when he’s carrying out his duties, he’s leaving behind his wife and young children. “If I’m going to be in Little Rock working, I’m going to make the most of that,” he said.
All of that would imply this is a trend, but Beebe rejects that. He said the high number of young legislators is an “anomaly,” that there just happens to be many exceptional young legislators at the moment, and term limits have allowed them to shine.
“Whether you’re an older guy or a younger guy, you’re on equal footing, and the talent is going to be what ends up creating the leadership, not the experience, because nobody’s got any experience,” he said.
He believes term limits eventually will lower the number of 30-something legislators because few in that age bracket will want to start political careers that will end so quickly. He thinks it will be more of an activity for retirees.
Lamoureux said that simple geography played a part in his selection as Senate president pro tem. As a resident of Russellville, he can drive back and forth from the Capitol more easily than legislators who might live three hours from Little Rock. He minimized the power of his office, explaining, “They may let us have those positions, but by no stretch of the imagination are we barking out orders.”
Nobody with whom I spoke believes an age of 30-something domination is upon us, nor should it be. A diversity of life experiences is the goal.
“I guess I haven’t thought about it all that much,” Lamoureux said. “I go back to, when we were making decisions, who was in my office? It was really just a wide range of people.”
Maybe so, but they were in his office.