Michael Kiernan cut his teeth on local politics, helping his mother, the secretary for the Iowa Democratic Party, make campaign phone, beginning at the young age of 5. Politics has held his rapt interest since. Kiernan’s election last week at age 29 to the Des Moines City Council is a stop along a deliberate leadership path that some of his critics said came too soon, with too little real-world experience.
His youth, though, is one of the characteristics that make Kiernan’s perspective so valuable to the City Council. A quintessential up-and-comer and an entrepreneur who was actively engaged in community conversations about Des Moines’ future before he became a City Council candidate, he’s the type of professional state and local development leaders are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to attract. As a peer of those who will benefit most from the ideas being discussed to make Greater Des Moines a 21st-century city, he’s in a position to offer an educated opinion on what it really takes to engage young people.
The problem in Iowa and elsewhere in the United States is there aren’t nearly enough Michael Kiernans. A 2002 study by the Young Elected Leaders Project identified 814 men and women – 10 in Iowa – age 35 and younger serving in elected positions in Congress, state legislative and executive branches, and in municipalities with populations of 30,000 or more.
In most ways, Kiernan epitomizes the up-and-coming politicians identified in that study, which was conducted by Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics and sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts. He’s well-educated, ambitious and, like 38 percent of the YEL survey respondents, he grew up in a family in which politics was discussed “very often.” He’s also representative of the 29 percent of respondents whose relatives had served in elected or appointed office. Young leaders identified in the study were overwhelmingly — 86 percent — men.
A young person’s rise to leadership doesn’t just happen. Iowans truly interested in improving the quality of life of their state and cities need to seek out young men and women with leadership skills and nurture their political aspirations. The contentious political climate of the Legislature, made more so by a backward social agenda, casts little doubt on the need for a more progressive voice, and that often means a younger voice. Local government is a good place for budding politicians to start, as Michael Kiernan has demonstrated with his successful campaign.
We congratulate Councilman-elect Kiernan and wish him well. We hope, too, that he’s started a movement.