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Young Politicians Offer Fresh Thinking

Common opinion is that young people don't care much about politics these days. If that's true, Duane Nicol and Nan Whaley are major exceptions.

Nicol is a 29-year-old city councilor. He was first elected to city government at age 24, and then re-elected at 28.

Whaley was just 29 when she became a city commissioner in Dayton, Ohio.

Whaley started volunteering in politics in college. She got involved in issues such as students' access to affordable loans. As a kid, she never really considered a career in politics. In fact, she majored in chemistry, with a minor in political science.

"As a young woman, I wanted to do the sciences, but after four years I'd had my fill," Whaley says.

"I didn't really think about running for office until I was about 26 or 27. I thought... I can do just as well as those people. I wanted to have a more immediate [impact] in government, so that's when I decided to run for city commission."

Now 32, Whaley is one of four city commissioners in Dayton. During her election campaign, she thought a lot about her age.

"It was a pretty big thing," Whaley says. "I look young even now. I had somebody say yesterday that I look 12, so that's something I deal with all the time, being a young elected official."

Born and raised in a small town, Nicol says politics is in his blood. His parents often discussed politics around the kitchen table. And growing up in social housing gave him an appreciation for a society that supports everyone.

"I grew up in a house where both parents had to work and we didn't have a lot," Nicol says. "My parents had never been part of a political party before, but they certainly had strong opinions on politics, and that was something that was discussed at the dinner table."

Those discussions helped Nicol develop his own views on social issues. His strong values served him well when he entered public life.

"I wanted to give back, and I had a little more progressive vision for my community than what had been going on," says Nicol.

Nicol didn't let his busy schedule discourage him. He was going to university at the time. There he studied political science and public administration. He also had a full-time job and another part-time job on the side.

"Every night I'd get home from work and put on the running shoes, and out onto the doorsteps I went," says Nicol.

During his election campaign, political organizers coached Nicol and helped him develop effective flyers. He also had the support of his family and his girlfriend.

Like Nicol, Whaley says getting elected was a lot of hard work. "Being elected was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be," she admits.

And things didn't get any easier after the election. That's because politicians have to make decisions that affect people's lives.

"You have to make some really tough choices," says Whaley. "Local government is where the rubber hits the road. So there are choices like, 'How long are we going to keep this rec center open?' or 'How many police officers are you going to put on the street?' And in some cases, those can be life-and-death decisions."

Nicol says his youth and lack of experience didn't seem like disadvantages when he was campaigning. His age wasn't mentioned even once by the voters he met during the campaign.

"In fact, I think my age helped me," Nicol says. "In our community at the time, most of the councilors had been there for a number of years, and I think there was a definite need for change in the air. People found it refreshing that someone my age would run."

Nicol's campaign slogan highlighted his desire for change: "Fresh thinking, new directions."

Before that campaign, his only political experience had been an unsuccessful campaign in junior high.

"I ran for student council in Grade 7 and lost," Nicol recalls. He then adds with a laugh, "My political speech, the whole thing was, 'My name is Duane Nicol -- vote for me. I hadn't realized that I had to prepare a speech at that first public speaking event. I was as nervous as all heck."

Nicol has come a long way since then. He has twice served as a city councilor. He has also run for membership in two federal elections. In the 2000 election, he put his name forward to see what would happen. But in 2004, he campaigned hard and came in second.

"That was a full-out campaign where we raised a lot of money, worked really hard and had a full team behind me. So it was a great experience," Nicol says. "There's nothing like it -- there's nothing like being the candidate in an election."

Nicol hopes more young people will discover for themselves how exciting politics can be -- as a candidate or a as someone working behind the scenes.

Nicol enjoys feeling that he's presenting new ideas and getting people to think about the big picture. That way, even if you lose the race, democracy still wins.

As a city councilor, Nicol spends 15 to 20 hours per week attending council and committee meetings and talking to the public.

He also works full time for a credit union as the manager of corporate social responsibility. He helps to ensure that the credit union acts in an environmentally and socially responsible way. It's another role that lets him put his values into practice.

Nicol says politicians need to have strong public speaking skills and knowledge about public policy. Soft skills, like being able to relate to people, are also essential. After all, politics is all about people.

Whaley agrees. "I think the key is that you have to want to make a difference in your community, and you see some things that you can improve in your community -- that's number one," she says.

"And I think you have to be very social, very open and inclusive to all different kinds of ideas, and then still have an idea of what you believe. And you have to be competitive too. I think that being competitive is really key."

Whaley says good self-awareness is the most important quality for an aspiring politician. A college degree providing a well-rounded education is also helpful. "You have to be well-rounded and prepared to take on anything," says Whaley. She's currently working toward a master's degree in public administration.

Making tough choices as a politician requires good judgment. It also helps to have thick skin to deal with criticism from other candidates, the media and the public. That's why it's often said that politics is a contact sport.

Of course, you also need to know what matters to you. "You need to know where you stand, and you need to be passionate," says Nicol. "Because a lot more people lose elections than win, and you have to know that going into it.

"You also have to know that regardless of the outcome, you did absolutely whatever you could to present your ideas."


Duane Nicol's Official Website
Learn about Nicol's work as a city councilor

The U.S. Government's Official Web Portal
All sorts of government information organized by topic

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