What’s it like to be a 19-year-old state legislator? We asked maybe the only person who knows.
Kalan Haywood II knows who he is and who he isn’t.
He is a young, black Milwaukeean who was elected last fall as a teenager to represent what he calls the Downtown and central city’s “Sensational 16th District” in the state Assembly. But he isn’t much like his legislative peers.
“The average state representative, around the country, is a 55-year-old white man – I am not that at all,” says Haywood, before turning 20 on June 5. “I think most of my colleagues were shocked that there was a 19-year-old serving with them. Some of them have kids who are 19, and some have kids who are way past 19.”
“It’s drawn a lot of media attention, which has allowed me to send some messages out and be an advocate for young people and the issues that matter to my district,” he says. “It’s given me a bigger spotlight.”
Outgoing and quick to laugh, Haywood effortlessly keeps a conversation going. With a low baritone voice, he seems at ease no matter the topic and if he’s not answering a question, he’s asking one. Of average height with a boxy frame, Haywood goes from suits and ties at work to T-shirts and jeans during his weekends at home in the district.
Even with his casual yet collected demeanor and the demanding pace of long legislative days, there’s one place he can’t yet go to kick back with his new Capitol colleagues: the bar. On more than a couple of occasions, other lawmakers have asked him out for a beer, forgetting his age and inability to legally imbibe. Haywood reminds them kindly with a laugh, saying, “Man, you know I can’t do that.”
During his first few months in office, he’s learned that turning an idea into legislation takes time. A lot of time. “It’s very simple to get a bill drafted,” Haywood says. “But everything else that comes with it isn’t. The process is definitely a lot longer than I expected.” (As of early May, he had yet to run one of his own bills all the way through the legislative gauntlet to become law.)
“A lot of people have wanted to meet with me, so [my age has] opened doors. They want to pick my brain and see where I’m at, and that allows me to pick their brain, too.”
While he says the initial surprise over his young age wore off pretty quickly among the other elected officials, they now view him as someone with a unique insight – “the young perspective on things,”
Haywood says. He’s using that cachet to reach across the political aisle.
“A lot of people have wanted to meet with me, so [my age has] opened doors. They want to pick my brain and see where I’m at, and that allows me to pick their brain, too,” he says of his meetings with those in the Republican majority. “I’m really looking forward to continuing to find ways to continue to bridge the divide between Democrats and Republicans.”
Haywood, who goes by the nickname “K2” and is also a business administration major at Cardinal Stritch University, has plenty of ideas. Many of the big issues he wants to tackle revolve around ending the cycle of poverty and include improving education, economic development, employment and public safety.
One major goal is to lower the state’s prison population. “We spend so much money on prisons and housing inmates,” says Haywood, noting that the 2017-19 state budget earmarked more than $2 billion for the Department of Corrections. If that amount can be cut back, he continues, that means “more dollars can go towards schools, roads, transportation – all those things we politicians dream of doing, those dollars can go there.”
But as for him voting on things he can’t yet do, Haywood is quick to note that his young age isn’t permanent.
“The decisions we make today – it might be about drinking laws or gambling and casinos – the things we do today are going to affect my generation for the next five or six decades,” he says. “So really, we’re debating my future and my peers’ future every day.”
THE 2019-20 WISCONSIN State Legislature has 132 members – 33 in the Senate and 99 in the Assembly. Here’s a closer look at who they are. – ABBY VAKULSKAS