By Pat Jenkins
Age is just a number to the dominant demographic among 2012’s candidates for elected office in Pierce County.
Thirty of the 54 people who ran in the general election last month for locally elected offices, including the Legislature, were at least 55 years old. Some, like County Council candidate Marilyn Rasmussen – the oldest at 73 – were well past the age when most people are drawn to activities more passive than political campaigns.
But stumping for votes is clearly a game that an older person is well-suited to play, says a political observer.
Seniors “tend to have more time,” said T.M. Sell, who follows political trends as a professor of political economy and journalism at Highline College in Burien. “The kids are grown up, and the candidate could be retired. Older people are more likely to vote, so they might also have a better sense of the importance of politics and government.”
Their life experiences and overall wordliness” should be a definite plus” when dealing with people and issues, Sell said. “They’ve seen at least some of it before. So they should have a sense of what works and what doesn’t, because honestly, politics really hasn’t changed in 3,000 years of recorded human history. The issues that Plato and Aristotle wrote about are largely the same issues we argue about today.”.
Older candidates do, however, have unique “challenges they should keep in mind,” Sell noted. “Do you have the energy and stamina to keep up with a campaign and an elected office? They both really are fairly demanding if you intend to do a thorough job, and you should.”
Rasmussen and her opponent, Jim McCune, 11 years her junior at 62, had no concerns about being up to the campaign or the job that McCune eventually won.
“I have plenty of energy for this. I don’t think age makes any difference,” Rasmussen said during her eight-month race for the council that began when she announced her candidacy. She continued to run her 180-acre farm near Eatonville while keeping up with the rigors campaigning, much as she did during the 28 years she held elected office before losing a re-election bid four years ago for the state Senate.
McCune, who spent the last seven years serving in the Legislature as a state representative and now is headed for the halls of county government, sees no issue with aging politicians.
“I’m not the kind of guy who thinks about retirement – ever,” said McCune, who also works as a salmon distributor.
County Executive Pat McCarthy, who’s 58, was re-elected relatively easily over her 52-year-old challenger, Bruce Minker. That extends her streak of holding elected office for the county for 10 years, starting as auditor in 2003. That kind of experience, plus the type that comes from being married for 36 years and having four children and five grandchildren, is what can make older candidates attractive to voters, Sell said.
Or, consider the sort of chops of a pair of 60-somethings who ran for Pierce County assessor-treasurer. Mike Lonergan, the winner, is 62. Previously, he was a Tacoma City Council member and director of Tacoma Rescue Mission. Billie O’Brien, 63, has spent 21 years – a third of her life – working in the assessor-treasurer office, currently as one of its top administrators. As strengths of their respective candidacies, both cited their experience – Lonergan’s outside the assessor-treasurer office, O’Brien’s inside.
Some candidates frequently tout themselves as outsiders, believing that voters wary of the same old thing want someone whose experience doesn’t directly relate to the work of the office a candidate is seeking. And that’s “a funny thing,” Sell said. “In no other line of work is an utter lack of experience regarded as a virtue. If you want a plumber, you don’t look for the guy who says, ‘I’ve never done this before, but I like pipes.’”
Other winners last month from the senior set include two incumbent legislators for the Second District who are in their 60s – Sen. Randi Becker and Rep. Gary Alexander. They and others like them grapple with social and government issues that have major impacts in lives of all age ranges. That leads Sell to another challenge facing older candidates and officeholders: Guarding against their comparatively advanced years affecting how they view issues affecting the electorate.
“It’s important to keep in mind the concerns of younger people and what matters to them,” he said. “It has been sad in various parts of the country where aging communities start voting down school levies because they don’t have kids in school any more. A truly wise older person should be able to take a longer, broader view of society than that. And as a bright young whippersnapper of only 55, I should know.”