By David Schwartz
Joel Rivera is 22 years old and just finishing his junior
year at Fordham University. He did not worry about classes
this Spring, as he took the past semester off "to help
facilitate the transition to City Council," as he puts
In February, he won a special election to take over his
father's seat in district
15 in the Bronx and became the youngest member of
the New York City Council in history.
Despite his absence from the classroom, Rivera is still
on track to graduate on time. His school gave him a full
semester's credit for "real-life experience" on the City
"I think it's probably the highest level internship in
Fordham's history," Rivera said. (And at $90,000 a year,
it is surely the highest paid).
So while most of Fordham's political science majors buried
their noses in textbooks, Rivera had a somewhat bigger
test: the mayor's $39 billion proposed budget.
When Rivera runs again in the September primary, he will
be joined by some half dozen candidates for City Council
seats who are under 25. Several more are just a little
older than that. And there are at least three candidates
who are hoping to take Rivera's title as Youngest Councilman
NO I.D. NECESSARY
Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest president in United
States history. He assumed office six weeks before his
43rd birthday after William McKinley was shot, edging
out John F. Kennedy by three months. But few people know
Roosevelt was also one of the youngest members ever of
the New York State Assembly, taking office when he was
just 23. The United State Constitution requires presidents
to be at least 35 years old. Members of the United States
Senate must be 30, members of the House of Representative,
But in New York, the only explicit minimum age requirements
are for governor and lieutenant-governor, who both must
be 30. All other elected officials must only be old enough
to be a registered voter, which means 18. "The justification
for age minimums is that the candidates be wise in the
ways of the world, that they've been around the track
a few times," says Michael Herz, a professor of constitutional
law at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan.
"The more important and solitary the post, the more important
the experience is.
"The basic argument against such requirements is the
same as the argument against term-limits: If the voters
want to pick someone young then they should have them.
The check against too young a candidate is in the ballot
box, and one shouldn't narrow the choices ahead of time."
On a federal level, at least, the minimum age requirements
"don't get in the way much," Herz said. With people graduating
from school much later, and seeking higher degrees more
often, the reality is that the federal age minimums have
little practical effect, Herz said. "There's not much
of a chance of these very young people getting elected."
In New York, though, it is different. Young candidates
do get elected, and for many of them, it is just the start
of a long political career.
Anthony Weiner was elected to the City Council in 1991
when he was 25. He served on the council for 7 years before
being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in
Miller joined the city council in 1996, at age 26.
If re-elected this year, he will become in January become-at
age 32-the senior member of the body (in seniority, not
And before Rivera, 23 year-old Pedro G. Espada held the
title of Youngest Councilman Ever, after his 1997 victory
in the Bronx. But no tears for Espada; he can still claim
Youngest State Assemblyman Ever, having gotten elected
to that post a year before his City Council triumph, when
he was 22. (He beat out Roosevelt and now Senator Chuck
Schumer, who was elected to the State Assembly when he
was 23 years old). Now, at 27 years old, Espada is defending
his city council seat in district
17 this year against the venerable 28 year-old Jose
The youngsters' critics (mostly the candidate's opponents)
say that their lack of life experience puts them out of
touch with their constituents and makes them ineffective
leaders. Edwin Ortiz Jr, who lost to Joel Rivera in February
and is running against him again this fall, said, "He
just doesn't have the experiences to be an effective representative.
He doesn't know the issues because he hasn't gone through
them." (In a strange twist, Ortiz, who is 35, complained
that because of his youthful appearance voters thought
that he was the younger of the candidates).
The young candidates counter the charges of inexperience:
"I can bring new ideas and new solutions to old problems,"
said Jason Haber, 24, who is gunning for the high profile
district seat on the Upper West Side. He cited a better
understanding of how technology could be used in education
as one benefit of his age.
Rivera said, "I bring a fresh perspective on how to get
things done." Elizabeth Crowley, 23, who's running for
district seat, said, "I would bring a young voice
to the council. The City Council needs to have people
of all ages. Fresh blood and new ideas are very important.
I'm not the typical politician."
But despite Rivera and Crowley's repetition of the word
"fresh", there is something recycled about, at the very
least, their names.
Rivera, Crowley, and the once-baby candidate Espada all
come from political families. Rivera's father, Jose, held
the City Council seat before Joel and is now a state assemblyman.
Pedro G. Espada's father, Pedro Espada Jr., is a long-time
state senator. Elizabeth Crowley announced her candidacy
outside the Walter Crowley School, named after her father,
who was a member of the council. When her father died
in 1985, her mother completed his term. Elizabeth's cousin
is U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, representing a Queens/Bronx
It is perhaps understandable that young candidates often
come from political
families. As Rivera said, "It's like a farmer's son
watching his father work the land. I saw what my father
did, learned from him, and said, 'I want to do that too.'"
And having that well-known name doesn't hurt either.
Queen's Democratic boss Thomas Manton, who has endorsed
Crowley, told the Queen's
Times-Ledger that Elizabeth Crowley "has the Crowley
name. There's no need to build name recognition."
But one could wonder how "fresh" their ideas really are.
The candidates, of course, say fresher than the seafood
at the Fulton Fishmarket. But they also say that they
will turn to their families for advice.
Crowley said, "I'm fortunate to have my mother, my father
and my cousin Joe who have dedicated there lives to public
service. It gives me an advantage. I can turn to my mother
and cousin for advice."
For those baby candidates without the name recognition
and powerful political families behind them, the path
to elected office seems a bit more...uphill.
Damon Walters, 20 and a youth coordinator at the National
Action Network, is running in District
11 against a field of candidates including G. Oliver
Koppell, a long-time state assemblyman and former New
York State Attorney General.
Yehuda Katz, a 19-year-old college student,faces an incumbent
in Brooklyn's district
48. In order to circumvent the Democratic organization,
Katz is running under the Libertarian Party banner.
"My party in particular is an underdog party," Katz said.
"I know this will be a difficult, long road. But I'm going
to be targeting unconventional voters, like students.
By virtue of my age I can reach them better," Katz said.
Katz also said that his pro-legalization stance on marijuana
was something that might appeal to young voters.
Jason Haber is a self-professed long shot for the Upper
West Side council seat. How will he overcome the heavyweights
in this high-profile field? "I will be out in the streets
every day, shaking hands, meeting constituents," Haber
Like Katz, Haber hopes to mobilize young voters. But
the younger generation is a notoriously uninterested group
of voters, even in federal elections. To get them interested
and involved in a City Council race would be quite a coup.
Rivera, for one, thinks that he has made a connection
with his younger constituents. "Being that I'm 22 and
a student myself I have a direct link to the students
of New York. Students are now more motivated because they
feel that they have a friend within elected office," Rivera
said. Gifford Miller knows from his first run for the
fifth district seat in 1996 at age 26 that youth can be
an advantage during the long months of campaigning. In
his first election, Miller said, "I was fresh to the process
of running- if you've run [for office] several times you've
hit your quota of people yelling at you at the subway
station. The first few times you can brush it off. You've
got a lot of fresh energy."
Joel Rivera, who had to start worrying about another
campaign before he sat in his council seat, said, "People
ask me how I can deal with two elections in one year.
I say, good thing I'm young." (For Ortiz's part, the elder
candidate said that he has no problem with another campaign
Miller does not remember his opponent criticizing him
for his age in his first election (which he won), "It
wasn't my age so much as for a supposed lack of experience.
"Fortunately I had some good experience from working
for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney," Miller said.
Edwin Ortiz said of opponent Rivera, "I don't think it's
so much an age thing, I think it's a lack of experience.
Age obviously plays a role with lack of experience, but
I've been involved since I was 17. I was the vice president
of my building's tenant association at the age of 18.
It's knowing the community, Rivera doesn't have that,"
Ortiz said, citing Rivera's private school education.
All the candidates have a different way of handling the
criticism that they lack experience, seemingly a euphemism
for being too young. In the past, Rivera has brought up
marches he has attended when he was 4 years old. When
Rivera was recently asked how he would respond to questions
about his lack of experience, he said, "People say how
can you be involved at the age of 4. If you look at the
likes of Rev. Al Sharpton, he's been preaching since he
was 4 years old. Rev. Jesse Jackson has been involved
since he was 7. These are all leaders of our community
that have been involved their entire lives. And the fact
of the matter is the Kennedy's have been involved their
Jason Haber cites political experience as press secretary
for an unsuccessful mayoral campaign in Washington D.C.
and as communications director for a D.C. Councilman's
office Crowley said that she has substitute taught for
nearly every school in her district, her husband is a
police officer, and she has two children attending public
school in the fall. "Being a mother, I know what it's
like to want to provide a better opportunity than you
had yourself. I can identify with the majority of the
city in that respect," Crowley said.
Yehuda Katz, the junior of the junior field, cited his
experience editing a newspaper, being involved in "small
scale" politics at Rockland Community College, and having
a family in the district. But perhaps knowing that these
things might not impress too many voters, Katz said, "Experience
isn't always good. It can lead to entrenchment."
Echoing Katz is 20-year-old Steven Weiss, a Yeshiva University
senior running for the district
10 seat. Weiss also mentioned some newspaper experience
(has media-baron Michael Bloomberg started a trend?) and
small scale politics, but said, "In terms of local politics,
there shouldn't be a lot of career politicians who know
a lot about the political system."
If some of these candidates are elected or re-elected,
the question remains: how effective would these baby politicians
When Miller first joined the City Council, he says, "the
other council members were helpful and I was fortunate
to establish working relationships with them."
Rivera said that since being elected to City Council
he is most proud of his voting record and using his position
to lobby for business developments in his district.
He also said that he was successful for allocating funds
for his district during this year's budget process. He
said that the other council members don't treat him differently
because of his age: "I've developed relationships with
older members of the council throughout the years through
my father. Coming into the City Council I'm not considered
a newcomer or rookie. I'm treated with the same respect
of Council members who have been here 5, 10, 15 years."
So far, Rivera said, his experience on the City Council
has not been affected by his age. "A lot of people stated
yes, you're young-are you ready for this? Obviously the
community has faith that I'm ready for this because they
elected me. And I'm pretty sure that I'm going to do a
good job for the community."
Arthur Fried, executive director of New York University's
Center for Excellence in New York City Governance, said,
"It's important for any institution to have a mixture
of individuals experienced with that institution and how
it works, and individuals who bring a fresh perspective
and fresh views about how things can get done. Age often,
though not always, goes along with that."
David Schwartz, 22, has just graduated from New York