Politics 101

By Magen Howard

For a group of state legislators and officials as well as congressional staffers, being selected for the annual Rural Electric Youth Tour helped shape their interest in government and public service.

Freshman Kansas state Rep. Steven Johnson can point to a number of factors that went into his decision to run for
office. But it was his participation in the 1983 Rural Electric Youth Tour that first led him to contemplate such a move.
“Youth Tour was definitely a big influence, and I was lucky to be exposed to people who encouraged the idea,” he explains.

Held each June, Youth Tour ― a weeklong, all-expenses-paid educational trip to Washington, D.C., for high school students (mostly seniors-to-be) chosen by local electric cooperatives ― revolves around sightseeing, meeting members of Congress, learning about electric co-ops and the lawmaking process, and making new friends. The program, launched  in 1957 by Texas electric cooperatives, has been coordinated by NRECA since 1964 in conjunction with electric cooperative statewide organizations. More than 50,000 teens have been involved over the years.

For Johnson, who was sponsored by DS&O Electric Cooperative based in Solomon, Kan., where his father served as a long-time board trustee, Youth Tour offered an opportunity to experience a totally different world. “Prior to that time, I rarely left the farm,” he comments. “Even driving out of the county was pretty big.”

Johnson’s enthusiasm led to him being named a member of the Youth Consulting Board, predecessor to today’s Youth Leadership Council (YLC)  ― a working group composed of one outstanding Youth Tour student from each state. YLC members develop leadership and presentation skills, broaden their understanding of electric cooperatives, and assist with resolutions and grassroots advocacy activities during the NRECA Annual Meeting.

“Youth Tour infused in me a sense of the history and effort that went into making rural electrification a reality and an nderstanding of the energy challenges our nation faces,” Johnson observes. “It was truly eye-opening.”

One of Johnson’s colleagues, state Rep. Kyle Hoffman, also cites Youth Tour as the catalyst for his political career. He remembers touring the Sunflower State Capitol Building in Topeka before his Youth Tour group headed east to Washington, D.C., in 1989.

Now a rancher and businessman, Hoffman, who represented Meade, Kan.-headquartered CMS Electric Cooperative, spent 15 years serving on local and state program boards, mostly agriculture-related, before seeking his current position. “Because of Youth Tour, I knew I wanted to serve in the Kansas legislature, and the chance to run arose last year,” remarks Hoffman.

Often, students picked for Youth Tour already have an interest in politics, like Minnesota state Sen. David Brown, sponsored by Buchanan County Rural Electric Cooperative in Independence, Iowa (which later merged with neighboring Benton County Rural Electric Cooperative to form East-Central Iowa Rural Electric Cooperative, based in Urbana). During his 1978 excursion, he shook hands with President Jimmy Carter, who addressed Brown’s group on the White House South Lawn.

“It was incredible,” asserts Brown. “I went on Youth Tour not knowing anybody, and by the end of the week, I had many new friends. I thought, from my co-op’s perspective, it was a great investment.”

Retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and South Dakota state Rep. Mark Venner concurs with Brown’s assessment. “Every time I got back to the Pentagon, I’d pass by the Washington Monument and recall the first time I saw it, on my [1966] Youth Tour expedition to Washington, D.C. [sponsored by Oahe Electric Cooperative, located in Blunt, S.D.]. “I was impressionable, and Youth Tour certainly did pique my curiosity in politics.”

Youth Tour also prodded South Carolina state Rep. H. Boyd Brown into a career in politics. The second-term legislator, who went on the tour in 2003 with Fairfield Electric Cooperative in Blythewood, S.C., grew up in a family that had been involved in politics since the 1920s.

“I got the genes, I guess you could say,” he relates. He loved Youth Tour, especially interacting with peers from around the Palmetto State and meeting his local congressman, former U.S. Rep. John Spratt Jr.

“It was a great learning experience,” adds Brown, who will attend the University of South Carolina School of Law this fall. “I realized that not only do you have to represent the folks who vote for you, but also those who aren’t quite old enough to vote yet ― young people.”

Hill Helpers

Youth Tour “graduates” include a number of congressional staffers as well, including Samantha McDonald, legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. John C. Fleming (R-La.), for whom she monitors agriculture, education, and labor issues. She traces her desire to work in government back to the 2001 Youth Tour, when she sat on the U.S. Capitol steps and heard then-U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) speak to her Keystone State contingent.

“It was my first introduction to politics, and I thought it was something I’d like to do,” she imparts. “Since then, my family has become really big advocates of Youth Tour ― I pushed my sister and three cousins to attend.” McDonald’s father, Kevin Barrett, serves as board chairman at Claverack Rural Electric Cooperative, based in Wysox, Pa., and as board vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association (statewide) in Harrisburg, Pa.

Rebecca Ulrich, a legislative assistant for U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and earlier a White House intern, became focused on affairs of state after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. As a high school student, she was involved with Freedom’s Answer, which encourages people to vote as a way to honor military personnel overseas. When she took part in the 2004 Youth Tour, thanks to Cumming, Ga.-based Sawnee Electric Membership Corporation, she got “bit of the political bug.”

“It was amazing to ask questions of congressmen I had only read about or seen on TV,” Ulrich reflects. “I was able to visit various monuments and memorials and see history up close and personal.”

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee senior staff member and advisor to U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Neil Brown, a 1996 Youth Tour alumnus with Clark Electric Cooperative in Osceola, Iowa, notes the trip marked his first plane ride and his first occasion to see the federal government in action.

“I was definitely excited,” he admits. “Prior to that time, governance was something that you understood happened on Capitol Hill but not something you really felt.”

Brown grew up on a small farm in the Hawkeye State and, after earning degrees at Harvard and Oxford universities, hitched on with Lugar’s office to work on energy, agriculture, and countering weapons of mass destruction ― the latter taking him on missions around the globe.

“A great pleasure in my work is to meet with Youth Tour students and show them new possibilities,” Brown points out. “Even if only one person thinks, ‘I could do that,’ or ‘I could do better,’ it makes a difference. If not for Clark Electric’s investment in me for Youth Tour, I don’t think I’d have pictured this possibility for service, with the President of the United States talking about legislation I helped draft in his State of the Union speech or before the United Nations General Assembly.”

Next Generation of Leaders

For Heather Wells Combs, Rural Electric Youth Tour helped shape her views of public policy while her grandfather instilled in her a love of politics and people.

“Youth Tour was a wonderful way to experience our nation’s capital,” she mentions. “It highlighted the principals, values, and spirit of electric cooperatives and the importance of civic involvement in local, state, and national matters.”

Combs, a policy advisor/legislative liaison for the Kentucky Public Protection Cabinet, formerly handled constituent services for U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) in his Lexington office. She attended the 1999 Youth Tour with Clark Energy Cooperative in Winchester, Ky., and was named the Bluegrass State’s YLC representative.

“I wanted a career that allowed me to improve the quality of life of all Kentuckians,” she remarks. “Being in public service is gratifying because it provides me a chance to do just that.”

Devin Coleman, a junior attending Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has always loved politics, a fascination that prompted him to apply for the 2007 Youth Tour with local New Hampshire Electric Cooperative in Plymouth, N.H., and later led to his selection as the Granite State’s YLC delegate.

“It was such a hectic week,” he emphasizes. “What struck me the most was the way in which our country has gone about commemorating the values on which it was founded. You see it displayed everywhere in Washington, D.C.―it was inspiring.” Now, Coleman’s attraction for the political life has compelled him to run for an at-large seat on Worcester City Council. “I’ve felt like this is something I’ve been called to do, and I couldn’t wait anymore,” he indicates. “Once I realized I could do it, I wanted to do it.”

It’s great to see Youth Tour alumni achieving distinguished careers in public service, concludes Randy Dwyer, NRECA director of grassroots advocacy. “Youth Tour has always centered on teaching our next generation of leaders about government and our nation’s history. It’s great to see former students take that instruction to the next level.”