By Charlene Nijmeh
Senator Mitt Romney’s recent announcement not to seek reelection based on his age has sparked an important conversation about leadership. As a Tribal Chairwoman who was called upon five years ago to serve, following the 40-year tenure of my mother, I’ve thought deeply about these issues.
I can understand that some people may feel that his decision is a loss for the country– but it is important to recognize the rare opportunity that arises when a politician willingly makes room for fresh ideas. The potential for representation by a new generation of leaders in our democracy is not only exciting it is absolutely necessary.
And in a Congress that is dominated by an old guard of political elites who rarely face serious challenges at the ballot box, making space for younger voices has become a social justice issue unto itself.
The recent passing of California’s Senator Feinstein at 90 years old while still in office illustrates the need and rationale for not only term limits but also for age limits for our elected leaders.
Holding on to a seat in the Senate or in Congress for personal vanity, ego, or self-enrichment deprives the Country of new leadership with fresh ideas and youthful energy needed to tackle the many issues we face as a nation.
For indigenous people, our elders are our memory, our history, and our faith keepers. In our culture, we revere our elders. It’s been said of our community that, whenever an elder dies, it’s like watching a library burn to the ground. There is so much wisdom and history that is lost that, for tribal communities, the passing of our elders is deeply tragic. Therefore, many tribal governments create “an elders council”, which is an advisory board where our former council members and leaders can continue to share their wisdom and experience with our governmental body without stifling the voices of the next generation of leaders.
We should consider the creation of similar “Congressional and Senatorial advisory committees” made up of former Senators and Congressmembers who can debate issues openly and honestly and can publish non-partisan policy positions. This would honor our elder statemen and women and respect their service and sacrifice to our country while allowing our new generation of leaders to lean on the experience of those who served before them.
Let’s consider the gift that Senator Romney has given to our body politic:
- Embracing generational change loosens the logjams of Congress. At 76 years old, Senator Romney served his Country well and understood the need for public service but he also understood the need to make space for others. By choosing not to seek reelection, he paves the way for younger voices to step up and shape the future of policymaking. Generational change brings new ideas, more timely perspectives, and cutting-edge solutions to the forefront. Those new voices, who haven’t been entrenched in their political position for decades can also approach a challenge with more collaboration across party lines.
- Space for new voices encourages policy innovation. In the constantly evolving political landscape, the absence of the old-guard in Congress enables new ideas and approaches to become part of the national conversation, rather than being squashed by entrenched politicians. Innovative politicians can offer alternative viewpoints and strategies to tackle pressing issues that may have been overlooked, underrepresented, or just bad politics for the longtime seat-holders.
- Shorter congressional tenures foster social and technological adaptation. The world is experiencing rapid technological advancements and societal transformations. Opting not to seek reelection based on age demonstrates Senator Romney’s understanding of the need for leaders who can effectively navigate these changes. By creating room for younger representatives, we encourage adaptive policy formation that aligns with the emerging needs of our society. Rep. Zoe Lofgren has been in Congress for 30 years and is the Ranking Member on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. It’s no coincidence that she has failed to hold the Big Tech companies accountable for the harms that their social media platforms are having on children – from mental health to eating disorders, the damage is enormous. A younger congresswoman would have had her finger on the pulse of what is happening right in front of us.
- Passing the torch to the next generation will allow for greater diversity and inclusion. Diversity in Congress is essential for making decisions that adequately addresses the needs and concerns of all Americans. By stepping aside, Senator Romney affords the opportunity for a more diverse set of candidates to compete for his seat. This decision can facilitate better representation across gender, ethnicity, religion, and other divides, fostering inclusivity and allowing a broader range of perspectives.
While we appreciate Senator Romney’s valuable contributions to public service, his decision not to seek reelection ultimately serves the greater good of the United States. It is my hope that California’s old-guard gatekeepers in Congress embrace generational change, because California and the Congress need it very badly.
Charlene Nijmeh is the Chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. She has reinvigorated her Tribe’s 45-year long fight with the federal government to affirm the Tribe’s federal status. The Tribe was previously federally recognized, was never terminated by an act of Congress, and 100% of its current membership directly descends from that previously recognized Tribe. The Bureau of Indian Affairs mistakenly left the tribe off of its list of federally recognized Tribes when that list was first drafted in 1978.