Boomers Answer Call to Service
By Christine Vestal, Staff Writer
Frank Andrews Shimkus (D),
former news anchor of WYOU-TV
He is one of more than 1,200 new faces in statehouses across the country.
November's elections ushered in a crop of lawmakers with non-traditional backgrounds: Many are not lawyers and have never before held public office. More women, Hispanics, blacks and Native Americans than in previous years were also part of the mix along with a new political breed - baby boomers who want to make a difference.
In the last four years, a growing number of boomers - those born between 1946 and 1964 - are showing up in the freshman class of state legislatures, said Tim Storey, elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Although scant data exist, Storey's observations at statehouses reflect a broader trend: Boomers, nearly 3 million of whom will celebrate their 60 th birthday this year, are eschewing retirement in favor of meaningful second careers. Nearly 60 percent of Americans aged 50 to 70 said they want to put social purpose ahead of other goals, according to a recent survey commissioned by Civic Ventures, a group promoting older workers.
As a group, baby boomers have been more civically engaged than previous generations, and because they are expected to live longer and healthier lives than their parents, late-life political careers are a natural fit, said Jim Emerman, executive vice president of Civic Ventures.
"They want to use the talents and experience they have to solve big problems in their community and in the country," he said.
To increase his visibility, Shimkus chose a ground-floor office with a plate glass window on Main Street in Scranton, and he even plans to put his reporting skills to work by holding town-hall style meetings and speaking directly with as many constituents as possible.
The decision to run for the Legislature was tough, Shimkus explained, because it meant giving up his career as a journalist. Pennsylvania legislative positions are considered full-time, and professional ethics bar journalists from politics.
|Nebraska Sen.-elect Annette Dubas and her son
on the farm in Fullerton, Neb.
Some new boomer legislators, however, plan to keep pursuing their first careers while holding office. A case in point is Annette Dubas, 50, a lifelong farmer and mother of four, who was elected to the Nebraska Statehouse.
The decision to run for public office was difficult, she said, because it meant leaving more of the farm work to her family: "We are a family operation. My son and his wife took care of the harvest this fall while my husband and I were out campaigning."
Even though she has yet to take office, Dubas splits her time between the Nebraska Statehouse, road trips to meet constituents and chores on the farm. "I haven't even been sworn in yet and I'm going somewhere every day, doing a lot of reading and educating myself," she said.
Like Shimkus, Dubas wants to be accessible. She plans to set up field offices and drive around her four-county district to meet citizens so they won't have to travel to the capital.
In Nebraska, taxes and education are always big issues, Dubas said, but for now she plans to concentrate on the state's severe water shortage. She'll also work to keep small schools open and maintain the vitality of towns.
Nebraska Sen.-elect Greg Adams with volunteer
students from local high schools
Adams figures he can combine his classroom experience and political savvy to solve some of the state's most pressing problems.
|Arkansas Rep.-elect Kathy Webb (D) on left, at her restaurant|
Education is also a top priority for Kathy Webb, 57, a freshman Democratic representative in the Arkansas House. Webb — owner of the Little Rock restaurant, Dim Sum Then Some — said she understands what education means for workers: "I have daily interaction with people who can't read and can't do percentages. I see the need for something to offer people who are not going to college — more vocational training."
As boomers nationwide learn the ropes of lawmaking during legislative orientation classes this month, they'll get a taste of the challenge ahead. The work of a legislator is not rocket science, but it isn't easy; it takes patience and an ability to digest reams of information, said Bruce Feustel, senior fellow at NCSL. Experience counts for a lot, but like any new legislator, boomers will have to pace themselves to avoid burnout and information overload, he explained.