Appeal of political work pulls local teens to volunteer

Even before they can vote, youths feel their own power

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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At just 16, Casey Decker can't vote, but he still feels like he had a big impact on politics this election season.

Decker supported his favorite candidates by making phone calls and knocking on doors, which, "in a sense, can actually be more effective," he said. He also registered voters.

When "you can't just vote and change something about the election outcome," Decker said, "it makes you go out and do more than just vote. … Not being able to vote forces you to take that extra step."

Decker is just one Clark County teen who says he sees the value in following, discussing and influencing politics. After interning for President Barack Obama's grass-roots campaign arm, Organizing for America, and volunteering for Democratic governor-elect Jay Inslee, Decker and three other sharp teenagers shared their perspectives on politics with The Columbian.

The four Clark County teens, most of whom are considering careers in politics, also sounded off on hot topics central to their generation, including unemployment, affordable college education, and many social issues.

Pivotal issues

On the minds of many young people, Vancouver native Judah Rancourt said, are education and finding a job. Rancourt, 19, has struggled with employment. Although Rancourt's home is Clark County, he's living in Yakima, where he's found some temporary construction work.

"The economy is not doing so well, and there's a massive number of unemployed youth," Rancourt said.

For 16-year-old Dylan Koester, health care reform has been another major issue for younger people, especially the change in the law that allows young adults to remain on their parents' health insurance plans. Another big topic is affording college.

"For many kids, it's really hard to pay for college," Koester said. "I'm college-bound, and lots of my friends are, so that's a pretty big discussion."

If a political topic is front and center in the news, these guys are talking about it, they say. Lately, they're grappling with the topics of gun control and the so-called "fiscal cliff," which loomed as tax breaks were set to expire and automatic spending cuts were expected to take effect at the end of this year.

Republican Carter Morgan, 18, also likes to debate with friends about what role the government should play in Americans' lives.

"I'm a big fan of the idea that we all have our own agency and we all make our own decisions, and we're responsible for those," Morgan said. Although he said he's a big supporter of people's donating to charity, he said he doesn't like the idea of the government redistributing individuals' wealth.

When it comes to political differences the teens might have with older generations, Koester said he thinks his generation tends to pay more attention to social issues rather than budgetary issues, supporting issues such as same-sex marriage and laws to guarantee equal pay for women. In his case, Koester says, he has liberal views about fiscal policies.

"I believe that the Democratic Party wants to create an economy that's built to last from the middle out, not from the top down," Koester said.

Rancourt said he sees a certain amount of optimism in his generation; many young people are energized once they learn about their government and that they can take part in it.

"They're becoming more idealistic as they see an end that they want to enact," Rancourt said, while many in the older generations are "not working toward that end anymore."

Intrigued in 2008

All four teens point to the 2008 presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain as the point in their lives when they really began paying attention to politics.

Rancourt said he's always been politically aware, but his interest in politics increased during the 2008 elections, when he started researching how he and his family could be impacted by those promises made on the campaign trail.

He joined a club for teenage Republicans and soon became the club's chair. He also helped start seven other Republican clubs for teens across the state and volunteered for U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler's 2010 bid for U.S. House. This year, the campaign for Republican gubernatorial candidate Shahram Hadian recruited Rancourt.

While working with teenage Republicans, Rancourt said his goal wasn't to convert teens to Republicanism. Rather, he encouraged them to do their own research and figure out where they stand. Either way, it encouraged more politically active young people, he said, and that's a good thing.

"A lot of times, they think that (politics) doesn't affect them, because they can't vote yet," Rancourt said. "It still does impact them, through student loans, through the economy. … They can have a massive impact at the political level."

Morgan started following politics when he discovered a fellow Mormon, Mitt Romney, was running for president in 2008. Even after Romney conceded, Morgan kept following the race and learning about the issues.

In 2012, Morgan got to put his political passion to work by volunteering in Clark County for the man who sparked his political passion: Romney. He also lent a hand to the campaigns of state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, and state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

Koester spent his summer vacation interning for the Inslee campaign. He made phone calls, went door-belling for Inslee and even escorted Inslee around the Clark County fairgrounds.

Koester started following politics closely in 2008, but knew he was interested in the subject in 2004, when his mother took him to a John Kerry rally.

"I was pretty young at that age," Koester said. "That was pretty exciting for me."

Decker said he became politically involved in 2008, and "the first issue that I actually did research on and had discussions about was the Affordable Health Care Act. … I got an adrenalin rush from talking about politics."

Encouraging young people to get involved in politics is crucial to the future of the political parties, leaders of Clark County's Democrats and Republicans said recently. Clark County Republicans don't currently have a young Republicans club, and the Young Democrats club is on hiatus until next month.

Eye on the future

Koester, who attends Columbia River High School and is expected to graduate in 2014, said he's interested in becoming a campaign manager. He sees himself in a behind-the-scenes political role.

"After this internship, I've become obsessed with campaigns," Koester said.

His fellow Democrat, Decker, also a student at Columbia River, said he'd like to run for office some day, because "it's more tangible if you're the actual person passing the legislation," he said.

Rancourt, who was home-schooled in Vancouver, has a long list of campaigns on his résumé. Besides working for Herrera Beutler and Hadian, he's contributed to campaigns for Sen. Benton and 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi.

"Most local (Republican) candidates who ran in 2010 -- if you can name them, I probably worked with them," he added.

Rancourt said he considers himself a "conservatarian," or someone who has a mixture of conservative and libertarian views, he said. Republicans should move away from the middle and reach out to their base in order to appeal to young conservatives, he said.

Moderate Republicans have moved "further and further left," Rancourt said. They've "embraced things like Obamacare" and "pandered to the middle to get votes. They're leaving a lot of young people behind."

Meanwhile, Morgan, who attends Evergreen High School, said he considers himself a moderate Republican and a fiscal conservative. He said the Republican movement in Clark County is growing, and "we're more sensible than the media makes us out to be." He said rather than focusing on social issues, he thinks the focus should be on finding reasonable approaches to fiscal issues. The government can't spend money it doesn't have, he said.

Volunteering for campaigns this year was fun, Morgan said, but "one day I'd actually like to manage a campaign and do something besides the grunt work."


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.