by Molly Bloom
SAN MARCOS — Getting young adults involved civically has been a struggle typically reflected in low voter turnout and general political apathy. But in San Marcos, home of Texas State University, their political clout is such that some local politicians are seeking to limit their influence.
The city's Charter Review Commission, a seven-member appointed group that meets every two years, has recommended raising the age required to run for City Council from 18 to 21, citing the "significant decision-making responsibilities of council members and the need for maturity in considering these decisions."
That proposal, included with 17 others in a report issued this month, comes almost a year after Council Member Chris Jones, then a 22-year-old Texas State student, defeated Moe Johnson 1,169 votes to 888 in a run-off election.
Johnson, a Texas State kinesiology professor, chaired the Charter Review Commission.
The change isn't a reaction to the election or an attempt to limit the political clout of university students, Johnson said.
The proposal would still allow adults under 21 to serve on city boards and commissions.
"All the discussion came down to experience and maturity," Johnson said. "The idea that we were against university students' running for city council was never mentioned."
But some in town said the recommendation was politically motivated.
"I think it's a knee jerk reaction to the election last year," said Bill Cunningham, a 57-year-old local public relations executive who, in 1972, was the last Texas State student before Jones to win a city election.
San Marcos voters have helped elect other young candidates in recent memory, among them state Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, elected in 2002 at age 24.
More than a fifth of San Marcos residents of voting age are between 18 and 20, many of them students at Texas State.
And San Marcos' student voter turnout in recent municipal elections seems to buck the national trends.
Nationally, 47 percent of registered voters ages 18 to 24 voted in the 2004 presidential election compared with 64 percent overall. San Marcos does not tally election results by age, but it seems clear that university voters played a major role in Jones' victory in December.
Jones received about 70 percent of his votes from early voters, almost twice as many as Johnson. Early voting lasted two weeks, but more than half the 1,353 early ballots were cast from booths at the LBJ Student Center at Texas State.
Johnson said he lost because Jones was able harness the power of student voters. "Being a professor," he said, "it's hard for me to go out and talk to students and say 'Vote for me.' "
Jones has spoken out against raising the age requirement but said he is more concerned about its effect on young people than on his own political career.
"I just want to make sure we're not sending the wrong message to permanent residents of San Marcos who are young," Jones said. "That's my fear — (that) it takes away the value and importance of getting involved while you are young."
Texas law allows cities to set age requirements for elected office but says cities cannot require candidates be older than 21. State senators must be at least 26, state representatives at least 21 and the governor 30. Federal laws require senators to be at least 30, representatives at least 25 and the president 35.
Of the six largest Texas cities, three — Houston, Fort Worth and El Paso — require municipal candidates to be at least 21.
In the Austin area, Georgetown council members must be at least 21. Austin in 1978 eliminated its minimum age requirement, bringing the threshold back to 18.
In setting the national age requirements, founding father James Madison cited the "greater extent of information and stability of character" gained through age.
But Cunningham said age isn't always the same as maturity.
"I've seen people who are much older than 21 who made me wonder what business they had serving on governing bodies, from the City Council on up to the highest levels of government," he said.
San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz said the age requirement should stay at 18, and voted against placing the proposal on November's ballot. The council will formally decide if the age requirement or any of the other suggested changes will appear on the ballot at its Aug. 15 meeting, which will begin at 6 p.m. at 630 E. Hopkins Street.
"If you can make a decision to join (the military) and serve your country, I think you are old enough to make a decision to serve your community," Narvaiz said.
Council Member Daniel Guerrero said he worries that raising the age requirement could make it harder to recruit young people to public service.
"We are always facing a need to identify new leaders, and it's getting harder and harder," Guerrero said. "A lot of times we have strong leaders that end up going somewhere else."
But Texas State University student government President Kyle Morris said if the age requirement provision was intended to tamp down student involvement in local politics, it may backfire. The proposal could become a lighting-rod issue on campus, he said, pushing students to the polls.
Morris said he is against raising the age requirement but is for putting the issue on the ballot. "Anything that enhances student voter turnout, I'm in favor of," he said.