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SIOUX CITY | Siouxland boasts the youngest Iowa legislator, the state's youngest county supervisor and one of the youngest city council members.

Is there a youth movement in the region? The recent changes suggests as much.

Local elected officials have traditionally been middle-aged or retired.

"If you are in your 20s and in elected office, you are an outlier," said Woodbury County Supervisor Matthew Ung, who, at age 28, is believed to be the youngest supervisor and county board chairman in state history.

Two of the four other Woodbury County supervisors are under the age of 40. Jeremy Taylor, who preceded Ung as chairman last year, is 39 and Keith Radig, a former Sioux City councilman who was elected to the county board last fall, is 38.

Ung and Taylor were elected in 2014. Along with Radig, they replaced three supervisors ages 61, 71 and 76, dropping the average age of the board to around 45. Supervisors Rocky De Witt and Marty Pottebaum, who were both elected last fall, are 58 and 64, respectively.

The average age of the five-member Sioux City Council now stands at about 58, somewhat lower than even before Radig's resignation. That's because his appointed replacement, Alex Watters, is only 31.

Watters said it's "exciting" to see a youth movement on the City Council and Woodbury County board. He said Mayor Bob Scott, 66, and the three other council members -- Rhonda Capron, 63, Dan Moore, 64, and Pete Groetken, 67, have been "very supportive and very excited to have a younger member."

David Gleisner, 36, is the youngest member of the Sioux City School Board, which, at 60, has the oldest average age of the three major local governing bodies.

The youngest member of the Iowa Legislature is Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, who was 23 when the session started in January and turned 24 in April as it drew to a close.

Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, who was 25 when he was first elected to the Iowa House in 2011, said he number of young people in the Legislature hasn't changed much since then.

"It is pretty steady. There aren't a large number of young legislators, but it is a consistent number," Hall, now 32, said. "The Legislature obviously should be more diverse than it is, in terms of age and gender and racial makeup."

The respective average age of members is 54 in the Iowa Senate and 56 in the House. The oldest legislator is 87 and the youngest in the Senate is 32.

Encouraging others

Wheeler said he didn't hear a lot of people referencing his age on the campaign trail, including when he defeated two other Republicans in a June 2016 primary for an open House seat. He said he at times heard, "we want somebody young," while another time a middle-aged parent gave a negative impression.

" 'I could not see my daughter doing that, so I can't vote for you,' " Wheeler recounted of that encounter.

Wheeler said he never made his age a campaign issue, instead he sought to keep it to how he would deliver on conservative principles.

It takes a leap of faith to enter the political ring, he said, adding: "Sometimes you just have to go for it."

Wheeler said he was pleased to see a lot of people from their upper 20s and into 40s contact him after his win, saying it encouraged them to consider running for local office.

"It is an issue of that, 'they have to see it,' thing," Wheeler said.

Hall added that young people may not seek office without encouragement from others to do so. He speaks to groups of young professionals and asks that they get involved by running. He typically adds a personal anecdote from his first run in 2010, when people didn't ask first if he was a Democrat or Republican but commented positively on his young age.

"People want to see a breath of fresh air or some young blood getting into it," Hall said.

Hall said the rise in young professionals in the metro area may be due to the growth in young elected officials who want to make an impact.

Jake Jungers, 28, is running for one of three seats on the Sioux City Council this fall, saying he wants "to make a real difference for the next generation" and that he wants to be "part of the current youth movement in city and county offices."

"I am bucking the trend of waiting to run for office until I am older because I love the community I've grown up in and want to make a difference for the community I plan to live in for the rest of my life," Jungers said.

Ung said he gets requests to ask other young people to run for office. Ung said he's done that, but none so far have pursued elective office. He said younger candidates typically are more apt to run for the Legislature, rather than county offices.

Compared to boards in adjacent counties, the younger Woodbury County supervisors are an aberration. There's no supervisor under age 50 in Plymouth and Ida counties, and the five Sioux County supervisors are between age 60 to 75. In Cherokee County, one supervisor is under age 50 and the other four are older than 60.

Ung takes pride in his relative youth in leading the county board. He has sought a definitive answer from the Iowa State Association of Counties, and it appears from most sources he is the youngest.

"I never see anyone younger when I go to the conferences," he said.

Not ready for the challenge

Hall said most young people don't run for office because they are "trying to establish their roots in the world, establishing a career or starting a family."  Wheeler said some people in their 20s are more concerned with playing video games or traveling, and haven't dialed into an adult mindset about getting married or buying a home.

"You have to have a bit of the real world hit you...They aren't politically active and truly don't care. There is (also) that discouraging factor, that people say you are too young," Wheeler said.

Professor Bradley Best of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake said running for elective office "is arguably the most demanding, high-input form of political activity anyone can pursue," so it is not surprising that young people are reluctant to try.

"Age correlates closely with all forms of political engagement, including the most basic of activities such as registering to vote and casting an election ballot...When you add the challenges that accompany youth -- such as being in the early stages of career and family life and, as is the case with most young people, pursuing the somewhat elusive goal of financial security –- it is not surprising that few people under 40 take on the challenge of seeking an elective position," Best said.

Best said there are varying benefits by having people with a range of ages in elective office. The skills that people possess certainly aren't tied to age, but older people may have a lifetime of experiences to give good ideas on public policies, while younger people may have fresh thoughts on old, vexing problems.

Best said young voters – and young office seekers – are uniquely positioned to speak to a wide range of quality of life issues routinely addressed by city councils and county boards of supervisors. Hall agreed with that point.

"I’m thinking here about the availability of stable, good-paying jobs, affordable, attractive housing options, access to childcare services and safe, effective schools," Best said.

New ideas

Watters thinks it is misguided to say younger officeholders have more energy or vivacity than older elected officials. He said the positive with younger officeholders is in their ability "to think creatively and to be open to new ideas" in a time when tight local government budgets demand changes in how to deliver city or county services.

"I think that is a skill we need to have," Watters said.

Taylor cautioned that it is too simplistic to say only young people can have new ideas for government.

"A spirit of youthfulness can be in an older person or the status quo attitude can be found in younger folks. I think the key is not as much age, as it is fresh ideas and rejuvenated commitment toward a willingness to improve things by changing the way they are done," Taylor said.

Taylor quickly added that officeholders with young families want good things for themselves and others in the community.

"They can relate to shaping our community with opportunities to shape the decision of our kids to raise their families here. It's also helpful concerning budgeting and taxes to understand what it takes to raise kids, run a business, plan for their colleges and balance work-life," Taylor said.

Ung said governing groups have the ability to function in a higher manner when having "that balance of experience and newness." But he added that it is not enough to have a "fresh" crop of supervisors.

"You have to be willing to ask questions and go out of the comfort zone...It is no cakewalk. It is what you put into it. You can be a good supervisor or a bad one, depending upon the work you put into it," Ung said.

He sought elective office when he was just out of college, pursuing an Iowa Legislature seat at age 23 in 2012.

Ung added young people who have not found their firm mooring in life shouldn't pursue elective office. He said holding public office is no place "to discover yourself," so he is glad he had a firm background of family and church to get him prepared for office.

"I was brought up right," he said.


County and education reporter

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