Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Press Herald

The new guard


Portland Press Herald
Monday, December 4, 2006

"Now we have someone in our peer range that we can go and have a conversation about our city. We can finally listen to meetings from our perspective."

-Justin Alfond

State director for the League of Young Voters

Justin Alfond had never been more excited to wait in line. For once, he was glad to push his way through the crowd. The 31-year-old state director for the League of Young Voters was surrounded by his peers.

Thousands of them.

The day was Nov. 7, and before finally disappearing behind the voting-booth curtain, Alfond was cleared of any last-minute traces of doubt; he knew he'd done his job before even finding out the results of the election.

"An election warden told me that from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. the lines were out the door and 75 percent of the voters where under 30 years old," Alfond said. "It was crystal clear what the League of Young Voters is doing to motivate young voters in Portland."

The next thing Alfond knew, he was officially congratulating four of the five 20-somethings who ran for local office.

As Alfond had suspected, it seemed as though the masses of young people arrived at the voting booths to vote for their peers. Kevin Donoghue, 27, replaced incumbent City Councilor William Gorham in District 1. Donoghue's friend Dave Marshall, 28, won the City Council seat in District 2.

On the school committee Rebecca Minnick, 31, was elected and joined 20-something Jason Toothaker. Stephen Spring, a Green, was unseated by yet another 20-something, Robert O'Brien.

"I think we could be in some sort of history here," said Alfond. "Now we have someone in our peer range that we can go and have a conversation about our city. We can finally listen to meetings from our perspective. Youth apathy is an empty slogan in Portland."

Portland's 20-somethings are part of a national movement among young people to become active in politics.

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement reported this year's voter turnout rate among 18 to 29 year olds at 24 percent, up 4 percentage points over 2002, the last non-presidential election year. That's a young voter turnout of an estimated 10 million in the last election, according to CIRCLE.

In the 2004 presidential election, Maine ranked fifth in the country for the voter turnout rate in the 18-to-29 age bracket, according to CIRCLE. Though an official count on local young voter turnout for this year is pending, in the last six months, the Maine League of Voters increased its own membership from 3,000 to 6,000 � an indicator of interest.

Many believe the spike in young people's interest in politics � and voting � is due in part to the Internet. Marshall, Donoghue and Minnick all campaigned online, using avenues including Myspace, blogs and personal Web sites.

From the young pols' perspective, their decisions to run were driven by issues that affect them and their peers, to a certain extent. Both Donoghue and Marshall decided to run for the council on the same day, and for similar reasons.

"I saw a need for a greater respect for citizen participation," said Donoghue, who holds a master's degree in community planning and development from the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service. "A (closed) culture has developed on city council, as I've observed. Participation has been seen as perfunctory."

He is currently unemployed, and says the lack of area jobs for young educated people also needs to be addressed.

"Kevin and I started feeling as though the council wasn't respecting work being done by voluntary citizen review committees. We felt it was time to bring in some new voices," said Marshall, a local artist. "The council is heavy in the baby boomer� generation, and solid with real estate interest, but there wasn't anyone speaking on behalf of rest of us."

While baby boomers may know the issues or be more familiar with bureaucracy, the young idealists say they generally have more time on their hands to devote to local politics.

During Marshall's campaign, he cut his work schedule at Portland West in half in order to introduce himself to his potential constituency. He plans to remain working part-time during his time in office.

The remaining council members are at least a dozen years older than Marshall and Donoghue. It's no secret; the sitting councilors are savvier and more experienced � similar to former Portland city councilor Peter O'Donnell.

O'Donnell said the council last had a 20-something on board 25 years ago. While the City Clerk's office had no record of the ages of past committee members, O'Donnell has a trustworthy frame of reference: he was that last 20-something elected to council.

"Both young, new city councilors deserve a huge amount of thanks for generating interest from the youth. Many of us have been trying to generate the young vote for a long time, and no one succeeded. They've shown they can inspire young people to get out and take action," said O'Donnell, who was on the council in an almost unbroken chain of years since his first election.

"Hopefully, they will be able to keep the young voters engaged."

O'Donnell said other than the two new members and himself, the only other 20-something elected to Portland City Council was Bruce Taliento, in the 1970s. Taliento passed away in 1999. "There are many more young people on the hill every year. Every decade more and more of the old families I grew up with move off. The demographics have clearly changed," O'Donnell said.

"There seems to be more people who are single, in their late 20s, early 30s, living in the city." In 2000, people in their late 20s and early 30s made up Portland's largest age group, according to the Census Bureau.

Years ago, O'Donnell said, his campaigning strategy consisted mostly of hanging out at what was then the hub of activity, Coluccis Hilltop Market in the East End. The concept didn't change for Marshall and Donohue, but the locale did.

Marshall and Donohue hit this year's hot spots near their constituencies: The League of Young Voters events, neighborhood meetings, area colleges and certain bars like the White Heart, where political conversation is abuzz.

"Instead of traditional approaches you have to have a go out on the streets. I worked doing voter registration at the University of Southern Maine. I got like 12 people registered who would have otherwise voted in their hometown absentee. I let people know they could register on voting day," Marshall said. "Mostly, I did mailings, went door-to-door, and tried to incorporate artwork into my campaign."

Marshall designed his own campaign postcards and posters as part of his out-of-the-box approach. One showcases a vibrant painting of City Hall.

"People responded well to a political poster of City Hall. It was 'graffitiesque.' A lot of young people who aren't usually into political signs simply took to it because it was attractive," said Marshall.

Marshall's platform was what he called the "West End basics:" a universal need to increase the affordable housing stock and to improve policing in his district, particularly in the Parkside neighborhood.

Donoghue campaigned around the city on his bicycle.

"I gave up driving years ago, when I was studying in Holland, for a more convivial lifestyle," said Donoghue, who hopes to better Portland's public transportation system. He is a renter who helped draft a preliminary proposal for an affordable housing measure called inclusionary zoning.

Both 20-somethings were joined by young people throughout the city to oppose the Taxpayer Bill or Rights, commonly called TABOR. (Herds of 20-somethings affiliated with The League and the Green Party crowded in bars leading up to Election Day to collectively oppose the bill). It all sounded eerily familiar to O'Donnell.

"At the time I first ran there was a concern from the people about taxes and development," O'Donnell said.

But once elected, the political game was a completely different animal.

"My fellow councilors advised me to wait six months before speaking on the council," recalled O'Donnell. "I was terrified sitting up there that first night."

Likewise, Marshall plans to ease into his position.

"I will take the go-with-the-flow mentality. I'll focus on what's on the plate for the council for a while, before I bring any issues to the table," he said. "There is no need to fill it anymore."

That's where the two friends turned politicians differ in their approach.

"My feet have been wet for years," remarked Donoghue. "The only different now is that I finally get to cast a vote."

Staff Writer Anna Fiorentino can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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