Gen Z in the House: Two young lawmakers joining Illinois General Assembly

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When Nabeela Syed and Brad Fritts are sworn in as Illinois state representatives this month, both will be 23 years old, recent college graduates and among the youngest legislators to ever serve in Springfield.

Syed, a Democrat from Chicago’s suburbs, and Fritts, a Republican from Dixon, don’t share the same positions on many issues. She’s for abortion access; he opposes it. He stands against gun rights restrictions; she supports a ban on high-capacity guns and new regulations.

Despite their policy differences, the pair’s arrival in Springfield on Jan. 11 for the Illinois House inauguration will mark the advent of Gen Z in the Illinois General Assembly, with Syed and Fritts bringing a new generation’s perspective to an institution that has long valued age and experience.

Both Syed and Fritts share stories from their recent days in college as partial inspirations for their burgeoning political careers.

Syed of Inverness remembers a professor at the University of California at Berkeley once describing the ideal candidate for voters as someone they could see themselves kicking back at a bar with, a description that to Syed conjured an image of an older white man.

“That doesn’t sound like me,” recalled Syed, who is Muslim, Indian American and wears a hijab.

But the comment didn’t dissuade the political science and business student, who graduated and ended up defeating a Republican incumbent for a seat representing the northwest suburbs.

State Rep.-elect Brad Fritts, 22, on Dec. 28, 2022.

State Rep.-elect Brad Fritts, 22, on Dec. 28, 2022. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Fritts, who is white and Christian and will turn 23 on Sunday , recalled his own issues with an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who gave the now-graduated agricultural and consumer economics student an “A” on a paper but with a qualification.

“I don’t agree with you on anything,” the professor told Fritts, who described the chirp as another instance in which he held his conservative core intact on a campus he viewed as liberal. “I never backed down from my beliefs.”

Youth has rarely been valued in Springfield.

For decades, inexperienced and backbench lawmakers have been called “mushrooms,” jargon for legislators who were content to be kept in the dark and fed manure by their party leaders in the House and Senate.

But while legislative bodies have long run on a subtle “apprenticeship” model in which new members were expected to first watch and learn, the focus on seniority is fading, said Christopher Mooney, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Many newcomers are winning seats without major establishment support and don’t feel quite as indebted to parties and old rules.

Despite the shifting norms, though, dozens of lawmakers still get a say on legislation, and the new lawmakers will have a role to play, Mooney said.

“You can’t just walk in and start making changes, especially when you’re new,” Mooney said. “There’s a lot to learn … but they will have the opportunity, if they so desire, to find a place to make a name for themselves.”

Even before their election wins, Syed and Fritts looked to others for help and brought some of their youthful energy to their campaigns. They hired political consultants early on to better understand campaign basics. And both walked their districts extensively to introduce themselves to voters, a lesson that underscores their commitment as legislators to focus first on representing their districts and constituents, they said.

They also were prodded into their races by friends and family.

For Syed, the first nudge came from her friend and eventual campaign manager, Anusha Thotakura, 24. The two had helped another friend win a seat on a local school board, Thotakura said, and as they discussed the state legislative seat, Thotakura asked Syed, “Well, if there’s no candidate that you’re excited about, why don’t you run?”

Then Syed’s mom egged on her daughter, asking, “If you don’t do it, who will?”

Syed soon began knocking on doors and raising money. Having worked for Democratic-aligned groups such as Civic Nation and EMILY’s List, Syed was no stranger to canvassing and fundraising. Her relentlessness — visiting by her count more than 20,000 houses — got a message out that crossed party lines, she said: “We’re here, we’re in the community, and we care.”

Syed won the Democratic primary and then raised and received more than $1.3 million in campaign cash and contributions, much of it from the state Democratic Party and Democratic House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch’s campaign fund. The cash catapulted her onto TV, augmenting the name recognition she had built going door to door and the two weeks her dad spent holding a sign outside a polling place during the primary and general elections.

Rep.-elect Nabeela Syed outside the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield on Nov. 28, 2022.

Rep.-elect Nabeela Syed outside the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield on Nov. 28, 2022. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

In November, she defeated Republican incumbent state Rep. Chris Bos 53% to 47%.

Poised to be sworn in, Syed said her policy focus includes lowering the cost of prescription medicine, reducing property taxes, fighting gun violence and defending reproductive rights. But listening to her community and building effective constituent services come first, she added.

“I will fight for my district,” she said.

Age and community played important roles in Syed’s victory, she said, noting her decision to include other young people in important roles helped build energy around her campaign. She said she hopes her win inspires other Gen Z candidates to run for office.

“It’s easy to question viability. It’s easy to say age is an obstacle, to say it won’t be easy for a person of color,” Syed said. “Young women of color are electable. We just need to put in the work to elect them.”

Fritts’ campaign started when his uncle, former longtime Lee County Treasurer John Fritts, laid a map of northwestern Illinois’ 74th District in front of him and pointed out the incumbent wasn’t running for reelection. Republican state Rep. Tom Demmer, also of Dixon, was instead running for state treasurer.

“I’m 22. Have you lost your freaking mind?” Fritts recalled responding before thinking he could be a fresh voice for rural residents who have become frustrated with state government. “And I thought, you know what, why not me?”

Fritts, facing the Demmer-endorsed mayor of Dixon in the GOP primary, took a similar strategy to Syed’s and vowed “to wear the leather out” of his shoes. He knocked on about 10,000 doors, many of them at rural homes spaced far apart, he said. Before the primary, he raised about $15,000, much of it in small increments.

Like Syed, Fritts’ family rallied around him, though tragedy struck just days before the primary when he was involved in a car crash while out campaigning. The impact threw Fritts from the vehicle and killed his uncle, who was with him while managing Fritts’ campaign.

Fritts nevertheless won the primary, defeating Dixon Mayor Liandro Arellano Jr. 58% to 42%. The win secured Fritts’ seat in the House because no Democrat ran against him in the general election.

Since he’s recovered from the crash, the Newman Central Catholic High School graduate has tried to learn about his district before he heads to Springfield. He’s taken on guest-bartending shifts at local taverns and gone on tours of local community colleges. Driving around the sprawling district is the biggest challenge, he said.

The main issues he plans to focus on in the General Assembly are fighting inflation, reigning in spending and supporting public safety. But he said he will mostly focus on his district.

“I think this idea that we need to go in and rifle in as much policy as we can is a little bit naive,” Fritts said, adding he thinks every policy idea has its benefits and downsides. “My youth doesn’t mean I come in and start swinging off the chandeliers like a playground.”

While Fritts and Syed join an exclusive club because of their ages, they aren’t thought to be the very youngest lawmakers in Illinois history. Downstate Rep. Avery Bourne of Morrisonville was 22 when she was appointed to fill a House seat in 2015. In 2022, Bourne, now 30, did not run for reelection to the House seat because she instead ran on Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin’s ticket for governor. Irvin and Bourne, the lieutenant governor candidate, lost their bid for the GOP primary.

Republican grassroots activists vent post-election frustration at state GOP ]

Still, Fritts’ said his age brought his election attention and he said he thinks it might also help him play a role in shaping the future of the state GOP, which “got its butt kicked” this election cycle when Democrats retained all statewide offices, extended their supermajorities in the state legislature and expanded their advantage on the Illinois Supreme Court.

“I think it’s great having people in their early 20s in the General Assembly coupled with people that are in their 70s,” he said.

Mooney, the UIC political scientist, said Syed and Fritts might bring helpful energy to the House: While some older legislators working other jobs might not put in as much effort into their jobs in Springfield, younger lawmakers tend to still be excited to tackle policy, he said.

That same energy helped get them elected, Mooney said.

“It’s a great example of how hardworking, self-starting, energetic young people who have time on their hands and not a lot of money can get out there and have an impact on the political system,” he said, adding that the two will likely now need to focus on getting stuff done for their districts and finding policy niches where they can get legislation passed.

Fritts and Syed were excited to meet each other at a new member orientation, where they learned about policy, pensions, the budget and tax structure. The two talked with state experts and, of course, practiced the mechanics of how to cast votes.

“I think it’s very powerful that, being as young as we are, we have a seat at the table,” Syed said. “We could provide some better representation especially for younger folks in the community that might not even be able to vote yet.”

The two representatives-elects talked about possibly working together on mental health legislation, a policy focus inspired by their age. Fritts has quickly learned that he’ll need to collaborate across the aisle.

“I have to have Democratic support if I want a prayer at passing anything,” he said.

Syed is learning fast too. She looked comfortable at a $250-a-head fundraiser buffet breakfast in early December, shaking hands and chatting among seasoned politicians and lobbyists. People like her are often not in spaces like that, she said, but the folks “who have been doing this work for decades” have excitedly welcomed her.

“Everyone coming into this needs to learn a lot. There are so many people in every room that I walk into that I can learn from,” she said as she stole a moment away from the other attendees.

For whatever lies ahead, she said, she will need to rely on the same skills she used listening to voters at their doors or teachers in the classroom. The thought made her laugh.

“It’s nice being a bit younger. It wasn’t too long ago where I was learning like this,” she said. “This is stuff that I’m used to.”

jsheridan@chicagotribune.com

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January 5, 2023 at 05:16AM

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