Do geezers rule national politics? Let’s see — on Nov. 3, 2020, Donald Trump will be 74, Bernie Sanders 79, Joe Biden 78, Chuck Schumer 70 and Nancy Pelosi 80. Then there are the young upstarts; Kamala Harris 56, Beto O’Rourke 48, and Cory Booker 51. And last are the wet-behind-the-ears little kids who are trying to get a seat at the grownups’ table, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29.
It seems odd that her elders often dismiss Ocasio-Cortez as uninformed, inexperienced, incompetent and even dangerous to the Republic. As a rookie congresswoman in a 535-member body where power comes only with seniority, she’s neither a threat nor a menace — or is she both?
She has inspired and helped activate efforts by young progressives to get rid of the long-serving Democrats that represent New York City and its suburbs in the House in 2020. They’re now targeting a dozen incumbents to defeat, including 27-year incumbent Jerrold Nadler (71), 29-year incumbent Jose Serrano (75), 29-year incumbent Eliot Engel (72) and half a dozen others. And here’s where it gets personal: The Millennial warriors are also targeting 26-year incumbent Carolyn Maloney, who represents Manhattan and parts of Queens.
I first met Carolyn in the early ’70s when I lived in New York. She was a smart, fun, vivacious (can you even use those descriptors nowadays?) woman in her mid-20s with a faint Southern accent. She was ambitious.
“I’m thinking of running for office,” she told me. “Maybe city council, and then we’ll see.”
“Carolyn’s out of her mind,” I told our mutual friend Byron Varme. “This is New York — they’ll never elect a Southern white girl to anything.”
In 1982, Carolyn defeated 15-year incumbent Robert Rodriguez for a seat on city council, representing parts of east Harlem and the South Bronx. She served for 10 years, and then took on 15-year Republican incumbent Bill Green for the 12th Congressional District. She won, and is now a 26-year incumbent.
I underestimated Carolyn, just as 20-year incumbent Joe Crowley underestimated AOC. Yet the narratives are similar — entrenched incumbent ages, loses touch and gets displaced by smart, aggressive newcomer. That’s life, that’s politics and it’s fun to watch and participate. I wish Carolyn well in 2020, but it may be time for our generation to move on (or move to Florida!).
Colorado’s “Blue Wave” seems to have something in common with AOC’s accession to mega-celebrity and the apparent dissolution of political norms. Both were triggered by voter distaste for all things Trumpian, but Colorado’s term limits have done away with ordinary geezer incumbency. Our professional politicians have perfected the art of office hopping, moving from one elected position to another.
Consider Wayne Williams, who was elected twice to the El Paso County Commission, office-hopped to clerk and recorder and then moved up to Colorado Secretary of State. After getting blue-waved by 34-year-old Jena Griswold, Williams is running for city council and, if successful, will run to replace term-limited John Suthers in 2023. Two terms as mayor, and he’ll be a 29-year serial incumbent pushing 70.
And Suthers is on the brink of achieving what Williams so ardently desires. He’s been an elected or appointed official since 1988, and if re-elected will be a mere 71 when he’s termed out four years hence.
In these cases and many others, term limits work. Capable folks like Williams and Suthers bring experience and perspective to office, and electoral churn opens up positions to ambitious newcomers. AOC may get the pub, but blue wavers like Griswold and 39-year-old Jason Crow (the first Dem to win CD 6 since the district was created in 1984) have real power.
Can Republicans find a way to turn back the blue wave? In all probability not, at least while Donald Trump leads the party. If Democrats in the Legislature avoid serious missteps, the GOP may lose Cory Gardner’s seat in the U.S. Senate and fail to reclaim the Colorado Senate majority. That might trigger seismic changes in the party, as former GOP Senate Majority Leader Mark Hillman implied in a recent email.
“Republicans must consider, both, which candidate best represents our values and is best able to connect with non-Republican voters in a general election,” Hillman wrote.
So unless the GOP can find some less ideological, young and reasonably cool candidates, they’re finished… unless the Dems really screw up.
But cheer up, GOPsters — history says they will!