CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It’s no secret that the median age in West Virginia is slightly higher than the majority of America.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows that the average age in the Mountain State is 41.3, higher than the national average of 37. Furthermore, the state saw a two percent drop in population between 2010 and 2017. This included young adults seeking opportunities in other states.
Despite this and partly because of this, some youth decided to stay and have entered the realm of state politics. One of them is Putnam County Delegate Joshua Higginbotham. Representing West Virginia’s 13th District, he was first elected in 2016 at the age of 18.
At the same time, Higginbotham was exiting high school and preparing to start college at University of Charleston. He wanted to get involved with politics after watching many of his classmates leave for jobs elsewhere.
He was also heartbroken after several of his classmates either became incarcerated, or died from drug overdoses. He hopes more youth will stay in-state and decide to gain an interest in politics.
“They have to take over eventually. Many of the baby-boomers and the greatest generation, they’re not going to be around forever to run this state and to run our country. So young people will have to stand up and take responsibility for running our government and that starts with voting.”
In addition to replacing an aging population one day, Higginbotham believes diversity is crucial in politics.
“You need to have at least one student on the education committee. You should have small business owners on the economic development committee. You need diversity in the legislative process. Diversity of age and diversity of ideas.”
Higginbotham admitted it wasn’t an easy start when he ran in 2016 as an 18 year-old. He felt he had to push harder than his older running mates to earn votes.
“When I’d go out door-to-door, or at a town hall and ask people for votes, a lot of people were of course wary of promising their vote to me because of my age. There were a lot of people who have grandkids older than me who refused to vote for me because they didn’t think that I was qualified.”
He won the vote and headed to his first legislative session in 2016. Showing a humorous side, Higginbotham shared a story from his first day at the Capitol.
“One of the more senior members of the House of Delegates thought that I was a page, the students who help out and run errands. He asked me to get him a cup of coffee and he didn’t realize that I was also a delegate. I got to know him that way and it’s a good story that we have now.”
Looking back at his first term, Higginbotham admits there isn’t much that he regrets. Being young and in politics has taught him a lot about time management, confidence and fighting for what you believe in. He does have one piece of advice for youth considering running for any office.
“Wait until after college, I did not. I was a freshman in college when I decided to run. Obviously I won regardless and I was able to graduate from college while being in the legislature and running for office and that wasn’t a problem. It just made it harder.”
In Lewis County, another young politician also said one of the main reasons he wanted to run for the House of Delegates was because of his classmates leaving West Virginia. Delegate Patrick Martin first ran when he was 22. Now 25, he wants to continue the fight to keep young West Virginians home.
“There were so many of the kids I went to school with who were leaving the state. I just really wanted to try to step up and do something about that to make sure they stay here and that they’ll raise their family in West Virginia.”
Another influence to run for office came for him when he was 10 years old. September 11, 2001 rocked the nation and broke the hearts of millions. Watching his nation come under attack inspired him to become involved in politics to ensure something like it would not occur again.
A few years later, Martin also got involved with business endeavors. At the age of 19, Martin had sold roughly 150 soda machines with the help of his father. He then got into rental properties, with a portfolio that now boasts 18 residential and three commercial properties.
“Being in business when I was younger, I saw a lot of the things that I felt like were maybe deterring to other businesses coming into the state. So then three years ago I decided I’d run and two years ago of course I won. The first years were a little bit different being a younger person in politics and being new also.”
One of the biggest challenges for Martin was realizing how much persistence would go into government. If he wanted to accomplish what he had in mind, it would take countless hours of hard work.
“I feel like that everybody that gets elected, they go in there thinking that they’re going to change the world overnight. It’s much harder than that, it takes a lot of time. Working with the other members, they really worked well with us and asked us what we wanted to see happen in West Virginia.”
Like Higginbotham, Martin wants more youth and young adults to get into politics. He said it can be easy, especially as a young person, to get knocked down by the stress and difficulties associated with being in a public office.
“Don’t be discouraged. A lot of times you’ll go to events and things and you’ll feel very discouraged on maybe how you performed or what people say to you or how they think. Just take it as constructive criticism and grow off of that.”
Both Higginbotham and Martin are running for re-election in 2018.