Correction: This story has been updated to reflect additional information received Monday.
When the legislative session begins Jan. 7, Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point will be its youngest member.
At 25, Shankland joins a young crop of Assembly freshman Democrats. Two others, Mandela Barnes and Daniel Riemer, both of Milwaukee, are 26; Evan Goyke, also of Milwaukee, is 30; Eric Genrich, of Green Bay, is 33, and Mandy Wright, of Wausau, is 35.
That makes six of the 14 freshman Democrats 35 or younger. By comparison, none of the 11 incoming freshman Republican Assembly members are under 35.
“The actual voters are not concerned with what year you were born but your level of maturity,” says Riemer, who will be representing Milwaukee. “Youth doesn’t necessarily mean immature. It’s as simple as that.”
None of the younger incoming members I interviewed suggested younger means better. Instead, they used the term “fresh” — fresh ideas, fresh perspectives and fresh voices — in contrast to what they see as stagnant and divisive interactions among veteran lawmakers at the Capitol.
Riemer says many of the voters he spoke with while campaigning felt there was a “real lack” of maturity among the current group of lawmakers, regardless of age.
“I’m not saying older is bad, but some older people do get to a point where they are jaded about certain things,” says Barnes. “I don’t think the whole Legislature should be dominated by young people, but if there are a few of us at the table … that’s a good thing.”
Barnes, a graduate of Alabama A&M University with a degree in mass communications, chose not to follow the career path of his father and grandfather, both of whom worked at manufacturing plants.
A job in manufacturing is no longer the way to go, he says, despite efforts by the Republican administration under Gov. Scott Walker to increase jobs in that sector.
“Manufacturing is kind of like that girlfriend that got away,” Barnes says. “No matter how many love songs you play in your car, she’s not coming back.”
Instead, Barnes is headed to the Legislature with a vision to expand green industries in the state and to train workers for the so-called new economy jobs. Riemer also campaigned on a platform to create jobs, rein in health care costs and improve education.
“Things are evolving rapidly with the economy,” Barnes says. “We need to be able to have a state that is ready to embrace that.”
Wright, 35, a teacher and mother of three, decided to run for office when former Rep. Donna Seidl announced her bid for state Senate. Seidl lost, but Wright won. She’s describes her Wausau-area district as an “island among Republicans.”
She talks passionately about the new opportunities awaiting her in Madison and recently resigned from her job in education to focus on the Legislature.
Shankland, the youngest member, is hoping for a spot on either the Assembly Energy Committee — she is focused on renewal energy and a long-term goal of energy independence for Wisconsin — or the Constitution and Ethics Committee.
She says her experience as the field organizer for the Portage County Democratic Party during the recall efforts underscored her commitment to progressive ideals and provided her with visibility and credibility with voters despite her young age.
She pointed to outgoing Rep. Louis Molepske, and Sen. Julie Lassa and Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink as other politicians in her area who were young when first elected to the Legislature.
“Lots of young people got their start in this district,” Shankland says. “I think the voters are used to that.”
According to the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, the Assembly’s incoming class of 25 is the second-largest group of freshmen after last year's record 30 new members.
It’s also the first time since 1985 that 54 of the 99 Assembly members are in their first or second terms.
The incoming Democratic Assembly freshmen are: Shankland of Stevens Point; Wright of Wausau; Riemer, Barnes, Goyke and LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee; Deb Kolste of Janesville; Robb Kahl of Monona; Melissa Sargent and Dianne Hesselbein of Madison; Tod Ohnstad of Kenosha; Stephen Smith of Rice Lake; Eric Genrich of Green Bay, and Dana Wachs of Eau Claire.
The Republican Assembly freshmen are Rob Hutton of Brookfield; Joe Sanfelippo of West Allis; Paul Tittl of Manitowoc; Rob Swearingen of Rhinelander; Mary Czaja of Tomahawk; John Jagler of Watertown; Mark Born of Beaver Dam; Michael Schraa of Oshkosh; Dave Murphy of Greenville; Tom Weatherston of Racine; and John Spiros of Marshfield.