In 2008, the US elected its first black president. In 2009, as a late-blooming college student, I spent a semester in Chicago and saw firsthand the affective powers of hope. Now, the Barack Obama honeymoon has ended, and yet people still say, "Well, he's better than McCain."
What's the real point of our democracy? Were intelligent aliens to set down on the White House lawn tomorrow, would they conclude that our electoral process exists to choose the leader best suited to represent the common good, or to identify which of the candidates is the least hated? These were a few of my thoughts during the SFR endorsement interviews for the New Mexico 2010 election.
With Santa Fe's 2012 City Council elections on the horizon, SFR asked each of the candidates what specifically he or she would do, if elected, to make the city more appealing to young people. A couple of them mentioned MIX; all waxed logorrheic about job creation; and the general feeling with which I walked away from all of these interviews: No one has any idea.
At the center of this issue are the two candidates for District 1: 18-year incumbent Patti Bushee and 25-year-old newcomer Houston Johansen—who, full disclaimer, is a former schoolmate from the grade behind me at Santa Fe Prep.
Bushee's website (pattibushee.com) states, "…we must work together to re-prioritize and redirect our resources to provide economic opportunities for the next generation while maintaining what makes Santa Fe so special." Johansen's website (houstonforsantafe.com) reads, "He is running to make Santa Fe better and more affordable for working families and young people."
Simply stating that this political fledgling is working the youth angle is insufficient. With his sporty beard, navy suits and hurried, rapid-fire responses, he personifies his target demographic: the Santa Fe son returned wizened and worldly from college, anxious to effect change on behalf of his downtrodden peers. The reality is that Santa Fe, with its 44-year median age, might just not have enough young voters for it to matter. And there's the oft-talked-about but rarely reconciled other problem: inexperience.
Bushee doesn't have that problem. In fact, for every one of Johansen's qualifications, Bushee has him one (or several) better. For Johansen's one year of managing One World Coffee and Trade, Bushee has five years as owner of Ladybug Landscaping. For Johansen's work with Earth Care International, Bushee has her work with Warehouse 21, the Santa Fe Farmers Market, the living wage, the battle against drunk driving. Johansen has the 19-year bent of growing up in Santa Fe; Bushee has 18 years on the Santa Fe City Council.
At some level, it's a debate about old versus new. Has Bushee been at it too long? Is new blood necessary for Santa Fe to move forward? Is Johansen more on the pulse of the youth issue than Bushee? Bushee has a proven track record of success, but will Johansen even be able to do anything? If Johansen can't do anything and Bushee is less attuned to the needs of the youth, does it really even matter?
And through all of this debate, in District 1 and otherwise, one question isn't being asked: Do our young people even want to live here?
Turning Santa Fe from one of the country's worst cities for young people into one of its best requires more than just renewable energy jobs, as Johansen proposes, or vocational schools and trades that pay better than the current oversaturation of hospitality jobs, as Bushee suggests. It requires actual things that young people want to do. It requires nightlife.
As a 26-year-old professional, this issue is very close to my heart. When I first started at the Reporter, I was fresh out of college, and no matter how many plays, bands and community events I attended under my journalistic auspices, the overwhelming impression it all left was one of age bias and boredom. Why is it that youth organizing groups such as the After Hours Alliance have to jump through so many hoops for a little financial help [A Sharp, Jan. 25: "Nothing but a Number"]? Perhaps the fact that, at 10 o'clock on a Sunday night, I'm writing this from a booth at the Atomic Grill—the same Atomic Grill that, due to a dearth of nonbar options that are open after 9 pm, has fueled my late-night creative binges since high school—is indicative of something remiss.
But maybe candidates don't even know this. At 52, Bushee is more than twice Johansen's age. The average age of all other nine candidates, across all four districts, is 58. The next-youngest candidate—Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center Clinic Manager Chris Rivera, for District 3—is 46, two decades older than Johansen. Maybe after a decade, or two, or three, the issues that affect 20-something-year-olds stop being priorities.
Which raises another question: Whose interests are they representing? Both Johansen and Bushee talk about their door-to-door interactions with the constituency, but who's home answering the doors during daylight hours when council candidate Johansen stops by? Not middle-class young people—we're at work.
Who, for that matter, has the time and money to contribute to City Council campaigns? Bushee emphasized to SFR that her campaign is publicly financed and that Johansen's funding comes primarily from his family in Texas. But what's more likely, that young white-collar workers are throwing coffee-with-Patti parties or that retired yuppies content with the youth-free status quo are her primary supporters?
The problem with the current setup isn't just the lack of youth councilors and youth activities; it's the absence of youth voices of any kind. The entire narrative is being told by—for lack of a gentler term—old people. The same old people who show up to City Council meetings are increasingly the same old people controlling the vote, are the same old people with the money to donate to political campaigns and the same old people with the time to volunteer for them.
No one has ideas targeted specifically at helping the youth base, which would benefit the community at large through better activities, safer streets, and entrepreneurship and the economic boost it provides. Sure, Bushee has a history of success, but Johansen, by virtue of his age, has the best chance of stumbling upon a more creative, sustainable solution. If nothing else, at least the candidates are thinking about the youth base, even if they're not embracing the whole issue yet. Job growth is huge and urgent and necessary, but it's only part of the big picture.