The state flag provided the first test for the fledgling Future Caucus of the Mississippi Legislature.
Jeramey Anderson, D-Moss Point, and Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, started the coalition of lawmakers under the age of 40 with the help of the Millennial Action Project, a national organization that is trying to end partisanship and gridlock in legislatures across the country.
Anderson and Barker seemed to have one thing in common when they met. Both were the youngest member of the House when they were first elected, Barker at age 25 in 2007 and Anderson at 21 in 2013.
Their youth enabled them to bridge the partisan divide, even though they were often on opposite sides of an issue. They had been talking for at least two years about forming a caucus of the youngest members of the Legislature to create a dialogue between the majority Republicans and Democrats.
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Then the spark for the Future Caucus came from social media.
“(The millennial project) reached out through Twitter,” said Anderson. Within in weeks, the caucus was organized and had its first informal meeting.
“We were trying to basically figure out where the middle ground was for everyone,” he said. “There will be issues that we will take up that will be noncontroversial. And I’d like to see us take up some issues that are controversial as well because one thing we were able to see in our first meeting was we were able to talk about issues that had been made partisan issues. We were able to either agree or agree to disagree and move on to the next issue.”
The flag debate
The flag is one of those issues that has been labeled partisan, he said, when in reality there are people from each party on both sides — those in favor of keeping the Confederate Battle Flag emblem on the state flag and those who want a new flag.
“There was a general consensus but not a hard-core one so we agreed to just continue that conversation,” he said. “That was one of the issue we knew would be a relatively difficult one but it’s something we are not afraid to talk about.”
They also discussed the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education and how to retain and to entice the best and brightest students to stay in Mississippi.
“We talked about college affordability,” he said. “How to make college affordable and accessible to everyone.”
There are 17 lawmakers under the age of 40 in the caucus: 11 Republicans and six Democrats. The goal, Anderson said, is to have an open debate, not a further division between the generations.
“What we want to do is create a different environment for more structured conversation that crosses partisan lines,” he said. “Our biggest struggle is trying to not create a generational divide in the Legislature.”
Advantages of youth
Anderson’s generation has a big advantage in modern messaging, it grew up along with social media.
“It can get information out extremely fast,” he said. “That will be one of our greatest assets as it relates to helping us push the agenda of our caucus forward by engaging folks who are traditionally left out of the process. We are able to reach target audiences through things like Facebook and Twitter.”
After the session, he said, they will be contacting college organizations, both Republican and Democrat, to try to set up a summit.
“We’ll try to engage those students and figure out what issues are important to them,” he said. “We also work closely with Boys State and Girls State. They reached out this year and asked us to provide some lawmakers to come there.
“Those people will be voters in two years.”
Another advantage, according to Steven Olikara, founder and president of the MAP, is the millennials are the largest generation and most of them consider themselves independent of either party.
“The parties must adapt or risk losing that generation,” he said. “In this moment, anything is possible.”
The generation, he said, no longer sees itself sitting at the kids table but speaking “as the adults in the room.”