Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector; Courtesy Millennial Action Project Rep. Tory Blew of Kansas (left) and Oklahoma Rep. Daniel Pae (right)
More than 1,300 miles away from the sharply partisan political gridlock of Washington, D.C. — where Democrat Maxwell Frost, 26, is making a splash as the one and only Generation Z member of Congress — politics in the Oklahoma state House looks a lot brighter to Republican Daniel Pae and his growing number of peers.
Pae, 27, had held the title of youngest House member since he was elected right out of college at age 23. But November's midterm elections saw a Gen Z surge into state governments — including 23-year-old Democrat Arturo Alonso, who newly represents South Oklahoma City.
"I was excited to see him win and to pass on the baton of being the youngest legislator. He's hit the ground running and I've become good friends with him," Pae says. "Arturo and I agree that we have to look at ourselves not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Oklahomans and Americans first."
That attitude on partisanship is a generational thing, says Layla Zaidane, president of the nonpartisan Millennial Action Project. And, as the numbers of young lawmakers across the country mount, the attitudinal shift promises "a light at the end of the tunnel" of partisan sniping and gridlock, Zaidane says. The Washington-based MAP reported earlier this month that 73 Gen Zers (those born between 1997 and 2012) are now serving in state offices nationwide — a sizable spike from the 23 in office last year.
"Young people have been disappointed by both political parties. The loyalty that previous generations felt to political parties doesn't really exist as much among millennials, and certainly even less among Gen Z. They're really motivated by issues — higher ed, jobs, climate, criminal justice," Zaidane tells PEOPLE in the new issue out this week.
"We see a lot more similarities among people who are the same age but different parties than we do among people who are the same party but different generations. It just goes to show you how much these labels are unnecessarily dividing folks."
Courtesy Tory Blew at dinner with her colleagues
Tory Blew, like Pae, was elected right out of college. The Kansas Republican was just 22 when she ran, 23 when she was sworn in to represent her small, rural home town in Barton County.
"I won and then it was like, 'Okay, so what's the next step?'" Blew, now 29, recalls. "The next step to me was: I want to get to know all 124 of my colleagues. And so that's what I did. And a lot of people, right away they look to see what is your label? Are you a Republican? Are you a Democrat? And I looked at who are you as a person and how can I get to know you?"
One-on-one chats over coffee and small-group dinners followed. And then there was ax-throwing.
Two years ago, Blew and her colleagues in the Kansas Future Caucus threw a bipartisan mixer at Topeka's Axe & Ale.
"You can imagine — folks who disagree on major issues with axes; that could have gone bad," Blew recalls with a laugh. But two legislators who are at the far opposite end of the gun-rights issue attended and spoke for the first time. "They debate like crazy on the floor and in committee, but had never had a conversation. They actually walked away from the ax-throwing social agreeing on some stuff," Blew says.
Courtesy Tory Blew Tory Blew in 2021
"People look right away for the party label and say, 'Stay in your pack.' I look at, 'How can we work together to better Kansas?'" That led Blew to a working partnership with Democrats — and other Republicans — on new aid to first-time home buyers that was signed into law by the state's Democratic governor.
"It was one of the first things she did," marvels Zaidane from MAP, which provides training, networking and other support to millennial and Gen Z candidates and electeds. Zaidane sees Blew and her work-together M.O. as a model for them.
"We need forward thinking, innovative problem solvers working really hard to fix things for people. If we can build the muscle memory really early on in people's legislative careers, we think we'll see that 10 years from now, we'll be in a much better place."
For more on the young politicians bringing a new approach to legislating — including Gen Z Congressman Maxwell Frost — subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.
Courtesy Daniel Pae
Back in Oklahoma, Pae sees the same promise among his peers.
"Instead of just tweeting about [issues], I want to be at the table and be a part of the decision making process," says Pae, who got together with two Democrats and three Republicans to accomplish the 2021 enactment of "harm reduction" help (most prominently, a needle exchange program) for Oklahomans addicted to drugs.
"I do think that we're a unique generation, and that's what makes me optimistic about the future. As more millennials and Gen Z-ers get elected to office, I think you're going to see more collaboration and more bipartisanship in terms of legislative effort. And that's great for the country."