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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, March 8, 2019

New bipartisan legislative caucus looks to the future




There’s a new caucus at the state Capitol: the Tennessee Future Caucus, a bipartisan group geared toward younger lawmakers and focused on finding common ground.

Co-chairs are Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, and Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson. The caucus is designed for lawmakers age 45 and younger. At least 29 lawmakers fit into that age group, including 14 new members, according to the General Assembly’s website.

“It’s not that we just want to hang out with others who are younger,” Curcio says. Younger lawmakers “do find ourselves not adhering to the traditional political divide. We seem to find more common ground on social issues, transportation issues.”

“It doesn’t matter if we’re red or blue or a little bit of purple in between,” Akbari said in announcing the new caucus. “We know that there are issues that we can agree on, that we can set aside partisanship and that we can focus on things that can help our state move forward.”

The caucus focuses on “taking in people who are newer to politics and saying we can break down some of these generational divides that have been present and … let the newer generation of folks who are entering politics have a voice and also have a pathway as they move forward in their career,” Akbari adds.

Also, at the news conference were the speaker of the Tennessee House, Rep. Glen Casada, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, both Republicans and both supporting the new caucus.

“I applaud Sen. Akbari and Rep. Curcio for co-founding this caucus. It is a great initiative encouraging young leaders to work across party lines to solve problems for our state,” McNally says.

To build bridges, the new caucus welcomes lawmakers of all ages, Curcio adds. “We’ve been very clear – everyone is invited.’’

The new caucus is part of the Millennial Action Project, a nonpartisan group. Its founder and president, Steven Olikara, was on hand for the Tennessee launch and talked about the group’s open-door policy.

“We very much make it open,” Olikara said. “Young members are playing a leadership role, but it’s powerful to have the buy-in of the speaker of the House in Tennessee, along with the lieutenant governor. … They’re not millennials but they’re millennials at heart.”

One of Curcio’s heroes is the late U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, whom he describes as “an iconic Tennessee lawmaker” who practiced civility in public service. Baker, a Republican, believed that “the other guy may be right; we’ve got to maintain a civil climate in which to work,” he said.

Actually, there’s a lot of bipartisanship in the General Assembly, Curcio says. He estimates that 90 percent of the legislature’s work is done on a bipartisan basis and centers on making sure that government works. But the perception is that there’s little going on except bickering and disagreement, he adds.

Olikara, in a telephone interview, struck a similar note.

“Our politics is going down the path of polarization and division and if we don’t develop a new generation of leaders to create a sense that we are a United States that can promote e pluribus unum – out of many, one – we will be putting democracy at great risk,” he points out.

Olikara founded MAP in 2013, and the group’s first project was starting a bipartisan group for younger members of Congress. MAP then branched into caucuses for state legislatures, and Tennessee is the 29th state to have a Future Caucus.

Currently, more than 800 young lawmakers are part of MAP networks, Olikari says.

MAP’s Future Summit 2019 will take place in Nashville on Aug. 3, right before the National Conference of State Legislatures holds its Legislative Summit here Aug. 5-8.

Olikara grew up outside Milwaukee, playing guitar and drums. He sang and wrote songs that blended a variety of styles; he also worked as a radio DJ. He began to see how music drew on many cultures and transcended racial and political lines.

“I wanted to express politically what I was doing musically,” he continues. When many different ideas inform the political process, the process advances, he adds.

Recurring issues for Future Caucuses include how to attract and maintain the millennial workforce to their state, Olikara says.

Another big issue is criminal justice reform, which is on the agenda for the Tennessee Future Caucus.

Curcio and Akbari have co-sponsored, with other lawmakers from both parties, legislation to ease the rules on restoring voting rights for felons.

“We say (to felons who have served their time) with our fingers crossed that you’re eligible to vote,” Curcio says. “In reality, we have set up very, very complex process.

“We make felons reverify what the state has told them they’ve already done.”

Also, Tennessee is the only state that blocks people from voting if they owe back child support. “It’s easy to run up back child support when you’re stuck in prison and can’t earn any money,” he says.

Another area of interest is the correction system, says Curcio, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative.

“We spend a billion dollars on correction,” he acknowledges. “We don’t want to give an inch on public safety, but we want to be smart on crime and good at distinguishing between who we’re mad at versus who we’re afraid of. There’s a lot of work cut out for us in that world in the next two or three years.”

He also calls for a review of the laws on sentencing, saying “1989 is the last year we looked at adult sentencing reform. … This is an issue that Future Caucus can lead on. Let’s not be driven by a fear of optics. Let’s be driven by what is good public policy.”

“I absolutely will be participating” in the Tennessee Future Caucus, says newly elected state Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville. When he was campaigning, he adds, the question he heard most frequently was, “What are you going to do to stop the partisan divide, the partisan bickering?”

“Millennials as a whole very much want to fix the political system,” Olikara says. There’s a perception of young people not voting, he adds, but the 2018 midterm elections drew the highest-ever millennial turnout.

Still, he notes, 31 percent turnout is too low.

What others may see as apathy can be discouragement, younger voters wondering if their vote really matters, Olikara points out. “If you only see dysfunction and inaction you can start to feel that your vote doesn’t matter.

“…We often break the voting challenge into two parts,” he says. One is to “make it easier to vote by getting information online and taking other steps, but we also need to make it worthwhile to vote. That’s a deeper question.”

If young people see that they have a direct voice through the Future Caucuses, he says, it will inspire them to vote.