Eloisa Melendez is a 23 year old member of the city council in Norwalk, CT. She was first elected at the age of 19, and is up for re-election this fall. We spoke with Melendez about her experiences as a young politician, and the importance of young people becoming involved in local politics.
She noted that, unlike federal politics, local politics tends to be less divisive. It is easier to work across the aisle because of a lack of partisan issues. Additionally, it is much easier to work with constituents directly when serving at the local level.
“It’s a lot easier to work really closely with constituents; obviously if you are elected to higher office you have a lot of staff…but as a councilmember, my constituents are my neighbors…it’s a lot easier to just grab a coffee with someone, hear them out, and work with them that way,” Melendez said.
She noted that the lack of involvement in local politics, especially involvement with the city council, can be very problematic, especially with the strong-council and weak-mayor system of Norwalk in which the council approves the actions of the mayor, but “every single election the mayor gets the most votes out of anyone.”
“There is this disconnect for some reason, and it’s actually really unfortunate because local politics…that’s where you really see things happen around you.”
For young people looking to become more politically active, Melendez noted that “You don’t have to be elected to be involved in politics.” Being civically engaged does not always mean running for office, although that is definitely an effective method.
“It’s important to really get a grasp on what is going on so you can actually be effective.” Understanding the problems members of your local community are facing is essential in being effective in your political involvement, especially since oftentimes young people are criticized for not fully understanding the issues the community is facing.
When first elected at age 19, she was very aware of her young age in her role as a council member. When she recognized that she “was elected in the same way that [her] colleagues were,” she began to utilize her unique perspective in making decisions. For example, when voting on certain issues, she often considers the long-term effects of implementing certain policies more carefully than some of the older members of the council.
She also emphasized the importance of having a good balance of elected officials. For issues based on votes that happened many years ago, it is helpful to have the perspective of more experienced members, but having fresh perspectives from young people is also important.
“We have to learn from our elders, but they have to learn from us too.”
By Kate Canavan