When Ryan Fecteau first began his campaign for the Maine House of Representatives, he could not even legally celebrate the announcement by buying a drink - a mere twenty years old, he was just entering his senior year at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Running much of his campaign out of D.C. made sense given Fecteau’s history; as the first openly gay leader of Catholic University’s student government, he frequently threw himself into contentious on-campus debates. Given he cut his teeth in politics by frequently clashing with the university administration - most notably in a prolonged, high-profile battle over LGBTQ rights on campus - it is perhaps fitting that from the day he announced, Fecteau has positioned himself as a foil to Maine Governor Paul LePage, who has frequently been likened to President Trump. Fecteau ultimately won his seat in 2014, and went on to be re-elected this past November with over two thirds of the vote. He was also elevated to the chairmanship of the House Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development, becoming the youngest committee chair in Maine legislative history. He recently spoke with Millennial Politics about his experience in public service and his thoughts on the next steps for progressives in the era of Trump.
At 24, you’re one of the youngest public officials in the country. What inspired you to get involved at such an early age?
As you might know, Maine is one of the grayest states in the nation. By 2030, projects indicate that 1 in 4 Mainers will be 65 years of age or older. In addition, the average age of members in the legislature is 55. I feel many of our elected leaders admit the state faces a challenge attracting young people to live and work here. However, it seems solutions rarely rely on the perspectives of young people. I ran to bring that perspective to Augusta, as best I can represent it.
Millennials are, relatively speaking, rather uninvolved when it comes to the political process - only 48% even voted in the 2016 elections. Why do you think that is?
I think it can be frustrating to millennials when they see institutions comprised of leaders unlike themselves. The issues they care about often go overlooked or are used for the purposes of political rhetoric and never actually addressed. All of this can be quite discouraging.
A Harvard study last year showed a majority of millennials now reject capitalism and around a fifth voted third party in the 2016 presidential election. What do you say to those young Americans who are increasingly rejecting basic political structures?
I am a firm believer that change can best effected within existing institutions. It is my hope that more millennials will realize that they should engage the system rather than deject it. They should run for office at all levels: local, state, and federal.
The Governor of Maine, Paul LePage, has described himself as “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular” and has been re-elected despite frequent bizarre and demented behavior. What lessons do you think Americans can learn about dealing with Trump from Maine Democrats’ experience with LePage?
I would say the biggest lesson learned is not underestimate President Trump. I don't mean this from the perspective of policy making. Governor LePage has been woefully inadequate in terms of realizing his policy goals. But I would warn of underestimating the public's approval. Governor LePage was re-elected with the most votes in a Maine gubernatorial election. He should be credited with his ability to deceive the public into thinking he is doing good. I think President Trump will be equally effective at this. I just hope people work that much harder to unseat him.
What role do you find yourself playing, both as a millennial and as a public official, in the anti-Trump "resistance"?
I do not see my role as any different as any other: accountability. The means of accountability I might use will appear different, but elected officials and the public alike have a responsibility to hold this administration accountable. I will do everything I can to ensure Maine policy is not stained by Trump's federal policy.
Have you ever experienced discrimination or different treatment within the State House as a result of your age?
I really can't say I have. I might have been underestimated and people are often surprised to learn my age. But I have not experienced discrimination. I was selected by the Speaker of the House to serve as House Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development. As far as the archives are concerned, I am the youngest chair of a committee in Maine's nearly 200 year history.
You identify as both a gay man and a Catholic. How have you reconciled those ostensibly conflicting identities during your time in public service?
Well, this certainly ties back to my perspective on realizing change. I think it is best to operate within existing institutions. I do not believe my baptism was any less of a baptism than anyone else. I do not believe the efficacy of my prayers is any less than the prayers of others. I do not believe that I belong in the Church less than someone else. I feel little internal conflict in being gay and also being Catholic.
And with both progressives and young people increasingly rejecting organized religion, do you see a place for Christian influence in the American left?
I respect the beliefs of young people and progressives who see no place for organized religion in our country's future; however, I think everyone operates with a degree of faith. It requires faith to cross the street and trust you won't be hit. I think Christianity has a place in the American left, because of how well it reflects some of our core principles: caring for strangers, treating others the way you would like to be treated, providing for the poor, etc.
If you could sit down with the current Democratic Party leaders - Pelosi, Schumer, Perez - what would be one thing you would want to tell them?
Do not underestimate President Trump and depend entirely on rhetoric that bashes his erratic behavior. The Party needs to run on issues near and dear to people rather than against a person's deplorable character.
President Obama garnered attention last week for saying citizens who don’t vote and get involved “get the politicians [they] deserve.” Do you agree with him? Do you have any more sympathy for those currently disillusioned with the political process?
I think people should vote regardless of their disillusionment. I do believe the two can coexist. If one is disillusioned, he or she should realize sitting on the sidelines is not how change happens. Persistence is key. Yes, it might take several elections to get the results one desire, but those results can only occur by chipping away at the rust. I also think people often get distracted by the federal happenings and forget they can help make good things happen closer to home. There are many moving parts to the political system.
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