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20-Somethings Begin To Grab Political Reins


LOUIE VALDEZ sounds like a typical Generation Xer. At 23, he still lives at home with his parents. He has yet to graduate from college. He is currently unemployed.

But there the stereotype ends.

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In January, Mr. Valdez will become the youngest mayor ever of Nogales, Ariz. - and the youngest mayor, currently, in the United States.

Mr. Valdez says he represents a new generation of American political leaders, idealistic yet realistic, with the energy and enthusiasm to tackle tough problems.

``We're really a very committed bunch of kids,'' says the young Democrat of the post-baby-boom generation, now in their twenties.

He may have a point.

Though no definitive list of 20-something politicians exists, a growing number of young people are putting their nameplates on local, state, and even federal offices - defying the popular perception of Generation Xers as a cynical, nihilistic lot distrustful of government.

``We're adding voices to the table one or two at a time,'' says Sherry Barsky, the 24-year-old founder of Youth National Organization for Tomorrow, a fundraising group for Democratic candidates under 40.

In 1992, Fidel Vargas became mayor of Baldwin Park, Calif., at age 23. In addition to his mayoral duties, the young Democrat is now a fulltime senior policy analyst for Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (R). Sen. Edward Kennedy's 27-year-old son, Patrick, was elected to Rhode Island's legislature in November.

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Generation Xers have captured city council seats from Elizabeth, N.J., to Chapel Hill, N.C., to Santa Fe, N.M. They serve as mayors of Jersey City, N.J., and Tallahassee, Fla. Many of the new youth brigade believe they bring a different perspective to politics.

``We're taking different approaches rather than wallowing in self-pity,'' says Mark Chilton, a 24-year-old town council member in Chapel Hill, citing votes to keep bus fares low and to boost recycling efforts. ``We're just not interested in the politics of two generations gone by.''

Only 6 percent of Congress is younger than 40, but Ms. Barsky says, ``We're trying to change that, to turn it into double-digit figures by the year 2000.''

But Valdez, soon to take office, will have his work cut out for him in Nogales (population 25,000). The border town has been beset in recent years by pollution and immigration problems from Mexico, as well as increases in youth crime and gang violence. Part of the reason he wanted the mayor's job, Valdez says, was to counter all the negative publicity his hometown has received.

``Also, I thought I couldn't do any worse than the past two or three mayors,'' he adds, noting that his predecessors were unable to stop the infighting and constant staff changes at city hall.

Voters apparently agreed it was time for a change. After the current mayor declined to run for reelection, Valdez shook up Nogales's old-boy's network by beating a longtime city alderman by a comfortable margin Nov. 8.

The difference between Valdez and his opponent was more generational than ideological: Both men, like most people here, are Democrats. But Valdez claims to have new ideas to move the city forward.

In addition to reforming the city charter to encourage more staff continuity and hiring more police and paying them better, he says he plans to set up a youth advisory council to develop ways to channel young people's energy away from gangs and crime. He also wants to attract more state and federal funds to deal with cross-border problems.

VALDEZ'S supporters are confident he will do well, and cite his experience on the Nogales School Board as proof. Elected during a divisive recall election in 1992, Valdez quickly established himself as a good listener and a consensus-builder, school board member Juby Bell says. She and others elected Valdez board president during his first term.

Valdez says he developed a passion for politics early in life when his father, a retired construction worker, took him to union meetings. In high school, he began working for statewide Democratic candidates.

Now a third-year politicial science student at the University of Arizona, Valdez says he hopes to finish his degree at the same time as he holds the $50-a-month mayor's job, and then go on to law school. From there, Valdez is aiming at state or federal office.

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