CONCORD — They’re young, diverse, organized and determined to make a difference at the New Hampshire State House, a venue not traditionally known for youthful exuberance.
The 30-plus members of the New Hampshire Young Democrats who will take office as state representatives for the session that begins in January have the numbers to make a difference. Anyone who doubts it need only look at the impact the roughly 30 conservative members of the Freedom Caucus had in the past two years, particularly during the debate on the state’s two-year budget.
After voting Thursday at the State House in the Democratic caucus for speaker, secretary of state and other constitutional positions, the NHYD members met across the street at Tandy’s Pub.
“That was the first step in organizing that group into a cohesive unit, but this is just the start,” said NHYD President Lucas Meyer. “We certainly have a group of excited, passionate and engaged young people who are ready to get to work this legislative session to make sure young people have a voice at the State House and that our priorities are front and center.”
The organization fielded 70 candidates, of which 54 survived the primaries and 32 were elected or reelected to the House.
Among those who count themselves as NHYD members, 22 of the 32 representatives on the list are newly elected, and all are younger than 40. Most are in their 20s or 30s and some are still college students. They owe their election in part to the blue wave that has swept the state, but that’s only part of the story.
The success they experienced on Nov. 6 was also the result of a two-year organizing and fundraising effort led by Meyer, a 28-year-old from Concord who has been involved in New Hampshire political campaigns since 2012.
A consultant with Preti Strategies in Concord, Meyer volunteers as NHYD president, although the organization has two paid staff members: Executive Director Amelia Keane and Organizing Director Shaye Weldon. The group gets no financial support from the state or national Democratic committees, according to Meyer, but gets rent-free space at NHDP headquarters in Concord.
“The party has its own critical needs,” says Meyer. “We’re fortunate in that we’re able to be self-sufficient through our own fundraising.”
The group started organizing for 2018 right after the 2016 election, and in that time raised more than $200,000, much of which goes into staffing.
NHYD candidates get free campaign advice, canvassing support and financial contributions usually in the form of direct mail pieces. By Election Day, according to Meyer, 325 NHYD volunteers knocked on more than 10,000 doors on behalf of their candidates.
Those candidates included high-profile contenders like Safiya Wazir, who came to New Hampshire as a young refugee from Afghanistan and eventually graduated from Concord High School in 2011. Her primary victory over a longtime incumbent and her eventual election garnered national attention.
As she raced to Representatives Hall for the caucus vote on Thursday, Wazir joked that she had been in hiding since the election after being inundated with interview requests by national media.
A board member for the Community Action Program of Belknap and Merrimack Counties, Wazir did not anticipate the celebrity she acquired in her run for office. “I never expected it would turn out that way,” she said, but if it brings more attention to the cause, then so be it.
“It’s great that the word is getting out on New Hampshire, how much we welcome diversity and value our youth, their energy and positive impact,” Wazir said.
Another NHYD rep.-elect who should be well-known to New Hampshire Union Leader readers is Cassandra Levesque of Barrington, who garnered international headlines in her two-year effort to raise the marriage age in the state as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award.
Now an online student at Southern New Hampshire University, she’s looking forward to sharing the lessons she learned in helping to raise the legal age of marriage to 16, with a judge’s permission required for 16- to 17-year-old partners.
“And I just put in a bill to raise the (legal marriage) age to 18,” she said, which was her original goal.
That kind of determination is also evident in many of the other NHYD candidates, whose stories maybe didn’t end up in Vogue, The New York Times, The Washington Post or Ms. Magazine.
Garrett Muscatel, a junior at Dartmouth, has been politically active since attending the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2008. Thanks to Dartmouth’s quarter system, he can avoid classes from January to June, when the Legislature is in session, and register for courses in the summer and fall.
“Most young people have a job that would prevent them from dedicating that much time to this,” said Muscatel, who seconded the motion on behalf of former gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern in his bid for secretary of state at the party caucus.
It’s been difficult for young people to serve in a Legislature that demands so much of its representatives and pays only $100 a year plus mileage. A big priority for the NHYD is to change that dynamic somehow, while acknowledging that a Constitutional amendment to raise lawmaker pay is unlikely.
“This group … part of their mission in the State House is going to be figuring out ways to lower those barriers to entry for young people to serve,” said Meyer, “whether that’s providing child care for young mothers and fathers, figuring out the timing of sessions, or other ways we can reform the way we operate to allow a more truly representative democracy.”
Other priorities for the young Democrats include lowering the cost of education and developing what Meyer called “a clean energy economy.”
Muscatel is one of the plaintiffs in the NHDP and League of Women Voters lawsuit against a new state law on residency requirements for voting, known as SB3. Encouraging more young people to vote and creating conditions that make it more practical for them to do so is also a priority for the group, he said.
Beyond their legislative priorities for the two-year session, the group is already looking ahead to November 2020.
“This is just the start. We have another meeting soon looking ahead to March Town Meeting day and city elections in a year,” said Meyer.
“We’re already recruiting for those races, and then it will be right onto the next one.”