Young lawmakers finding their way in Montana’s Capitol

AP

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HELENA (AP) — When the Montana House debated whether to require parental consent before minors can bronze themselves in tanning beds, there was lots of talk about brain development and young people’s inability to make wise decisions.

The discussion didn’t sit well with Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, who at 19 is the youngest member of the Montana Legislature and among the youngest in the nation. He rose from his seat to set the chamber straight.

“Mr. Chairman, I just want to go on record that this teenager with a not-fully formed brain did beat a professor and an incumbent. Thank you.”

Bachmeier, a Democrat from Havre, brought chuckles from his older colleagues.

While dozens of freshman lawmakers serve in the Legislature each session, young faces like Bachmeier’s are few. In the 100-member House, only five are under the age of 30. In the Senate, the youngest member is 34.

But these young legislators speak for their generation on such priorities as education, technology, the environment and their communities.

House Speaker Austin Knudsen was 29 when he first arrived.

“During my first session, I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut just about the entire session. I carried very little legislation and stood up on the floor very rarely. I just tried to learn,” said Knudsen, now 35.

“You get some who show up and want to wear blue jeans on the floor and don’t understand that you have to wear a tie every day.”

At 30, Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, a Billings Republican, is into his third term.

He likened his first session to his first day of college, arriving in the Capitol with nerves, energy and wonderment. “Everything makes a lot more sense now,” he said.

Zolnikov, who chairs the House Energy and Technology Committee, dismisses characterizations from some older colleagues that his generation is self-centered, inexperienced in building relationships and lacking an understanding of the big picture.

“We don’t have a lot of life experiences and we might not have all the expertise, but we have a lot of energy and a lot of ideas,” Zolnikov said. “We think our ideas are really important. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

A few rows behind Zolnikov in the House chamber sits first-term Rep. Adam Rosendale, a Republican from Billings and the son of state Auditor Matt Rosendale.

The younger Rosendale, who sports a foot-long ponytail, hardly fits the profile of a straight-laced Republican. He occasionally bucks his party — like he did when he joined fellow young Republicans in seeking to repeal the death penalty.

Party leaders sometimes take freshman members aside to counsel them about core party values. Even seating charts aren’t left to chance; less experienced legislators sit near veteran members who can serve as mentors.

Senate President Scott Sales, who was 42 when he became a member of the House, knows the job isn’t easy.

“It’s the steepest learning curve I’ve ever done,” Sales said.

Sales said new lawmakers with abundant youthful cockiness best serve themselves by listening and learning.

“These younger people think they come in already prepared for life, and they’re not as willing to, maybe, take the advice of a more senior person,” Sales said.

Sen. Diane Sands, a Democrat from Missoula, considers mentoring among her most important roles.

“I talk to them about how the Legislature really works, but also how to think about having a political career — how to pick a path for yourself,” Sands said. “You might want to be a policy person. You might want to be on a leadership track. Or you might be the kind of person who tilts at windmills.”

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