TOMORROW'S LEADERS TODAY Panelists at the YDA conference. [Photo by Natalja Kent]
"Hypothetically, in an alternate universe, if you were governor," a college-age guy with tousled hair is asking Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, "if you were sent a bill that would regulate and tax marijuana, would you be willing to sign that bill?"
It's Saturday morning at the Rhode Island Convention Center and Taveras — the Honorary Chair of today's Northeast Conference of the Young Democrats of America — has just finished delivering his welcoming address.
"We need young people now more than ever because you have a compass that knows what's right and what's wrong," Taveras said near the end of a speech that ranged from his Head Start-to-Harvard autobiography to descriptions of the tough-love financial approach he struck at City Hall when he arrived in 2011.
In response to the alternate-universe scenario, Taveras says that he probably doesn't have the answer the guy is looking for; he supports medical marijuana, not full-on legalization.
"Would you keep an open mind?" the guy asks.
Always, Taveras says. A few minutes later, he exits the room to a standing ovation, shaking hands and smiling as he goes.
Today's conference is, among other things, a pep rally starring some of Rhode Island's youngest politicos. State Representative Katherine Kazarian from East Providence (22 years old) makes an appearance. So do RI Democratic Party Interim Director Jonathan Boucher (26), Central Falls Mayor James Diossa (27), and state-rep-turned-Democratic-party-director-turned-secretary-of-state-candidate Edwin Pacheco (31). During an afternoon panel called "Young Elected Officials," West Warwick State Senator Adam Satchell refers to himself as an "elder statesman" at 32.
The conference is also a chance for a local YDA chapter still glowing from its same-sex marriage victory to ask "What next?" The "Policy Problems Facing Gen Y" panel that follows Taveras offers a buffet of answers: ending the Drug War, eliminating predatory payday lending, fighting to protect women's reproductive rights. "Rhode Island is an anti-choice legislature, they just don't like to talk about [it]," says Paula Hodges, the Planned Parenthood Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for Rhode Island, at one point.
Later, in the day's keynote address, YDA national president, Rod Snyder, a tall, lanky West Virginian in a trim black suit, tells the adoring crowd that conservatives have failed to connect with young voters for so long that they've stopped trying to attract votes and simply started trying to block them. He cites a New Hampshire house speaker who reportedly said, "We can't allow these young liberal students to vote with their hearts and not with their minds" in support of a bill banning college students from voting in their campus district. The Providence crowd, about 40 people seated at banquet tables around the room, many of them wearing suits, boos.
"Well, you know what?" Snyder says. "If voting with our hearts means ensuring that every child in the United States has health care, I won't apologize . . . if voting with our hearts means making sure that all of our troops come home and we don't lose one more life in Afghanistan or Iraq, I'm not going to apologize."