By Amy R. Sisk

Community News Service,
UM School of Journalism

HELENA – A smile radiated from Sarah Laszloffy’s face as she recited the oath of office on the floor of the Montana House of Representatives. At age 21, she was now the youngest member of Montana’s 63rd Legislature.

“It was surreal,” said the new Republican lawmaker from Laurel. “It’s really humbling, and I can’t believe that it’s actually happening.”

Three other freshman representatives are also in their 20s, and all sit on the Republican side of the aisle.

Their presence here stems from a fresh wave of enthusiasm for conservative principles. In particular, the House’s four youngest newcomers this session bring economic priorities to the table.

Fiscal problems as catalyst

The country’s current economic status has a number of young conservatives worried about their generation’s future, including 28-year-old Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale.

“A lot of us were going to college at that time and saw the career fairs just disappear,” Galt said. “No one was hiring anymore, and a lot of [graduates] came out struggling for jobs.”

As a result, he said, young people realized the GOP could do more for job growth. He believes smaller government and fewer taxes will let private industry do what it does best: employ people.

Party leaders also recognize the role fiscal concerns played in mobilizing their younger colleagues during the 2012 election cycle.

“They feel differently about the national debt because it will impact them more than the older generation,” said Rep. Christy Clark, R-Choteau.

Clark sees young conservatives increasingly involved in crafting the party’s future, as demonstrated by their interest in the state’s upcoming GOP convention in June.

For the first time, young Republicans have asked Clark, who serves as vice-chair of the Montana Republican Party, to organize workshops geared toward people their age to cover topics like grassroots organizing and media outreach.

Opportunity for party collaboration

The Legislature’s youngest Democrat, Rep. Bryce Bennett of Missoula, 28, said he appreciates the new abundance of young lawmakers across the aisle, but that doesn’t mean young people have abandoned the Democratic Party.

“I think that there’s one party that’s really investing in the things that matter to young people,” Bennett said, referring to his own. “We want to have opportunities for jobs – good paying jobs – and we want affordable education so we’re not taking on a bunch of debt when we leave college.”

He hopes some of the attention his young, conservative colleagues place on those issues will spread to the rest of the GOP. He sees opportunity to partner on proposals that would benefit youth around the state and is already building relationships to start that dialogue.

The young Republicans have found willing partners among Democrats – two are already working with members of the other party to draft bills to implement stricter child sex trafficking laws and to protect personal information online.

A steep learning curve

The youngest members of the House have lofty goals for the session, yet they recognize they must make educated decisions about unfamiliar topics.

While veterans on the committee better understand the intricacies of the tax structure, 24-year-old Rep. Nicholas Schwaderer, R-Superior, said he has noticed the freshmen – whether they’re 20 or 60 – are asking the same questions to get up to speed.

“There’s a point where we’re all on the same playing field regardless of age,” he said.

So far, veteran lawmakers have welcomed and helped train newcomers, said Laszloffy, whose father, Jeff, served in the statehouse and is now President of the Montana Family Foundation.

“It’s great because I’m gaining their wisdom and exchanging ideas,” she said. “And having our faces on the floor helps remind the legislative body that there’s more than just their generation to think about.”