Balancing College with Being an Elected Legislator

By Hannah Miao ’21

Think it’s hard being a college student? Try being a political representative as well.

On March 4, POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service invited two young elected officials to speak on Duke’s campus.

Cassandra Levesque (D) is a 19-year-old New Hampshire state representative and a student at Southern New Hampshire University. As a committed Girl Scout, she has been a strong advocate for ending child marriage for the past four years. Levesque’s mentor, New Hampshire State Representative Ellen Read (D), encouraged her to run for political office to give her a larger platform for her advocacy.

Garrett Cole (R) is a 21-year-old West Virginia County Commissioner and student at West Virginia University Institute of Technology. Representing Nicholas County, Cole said he sees his role as tackling issues that state representatives do not have time to look into.

For Levesque, her age proved to be an advantage on the campaign trail. She introduces new ideas, highlights issues others did not think about, and represents the perspectives of college students. She also has the advantage of being part of a close-knit community; many adults in her district had watched her grow up and were familiar with her character and work ethic.

Cole, on the other hand, would “leave [his] 21-year-old age on the doorstep” as he campaigned for county commissioner. Since his opponents construed his young age as a talking point against him, he chose to focus on the job and the issues rather than let his age overshadow his capabilities.

While the national political scene appears to be dominated by political conflict, Levesque and Cole see bipartisanship thriving on the local and state level. “There’s 400 of us,” said Levesque, referring to the New Hampshire State Legislature, “and every single bill has come before the House during session. For the most part, we try to be bipartisan as much as we can. We try to make sure that we get things done.”

For these two, helping their constituents serves as an overarching motivation for their work. “My constituents voted me in, they can always vote me out,” Levesque said.

Levesque and Cole use social media to stay connected to their constituents. Through Facebook and Twitter, Levesque receives messages from constituents on the issues they are most passionate about. Similarly, Cole often posts the commissioners’ meeting agendas on Facebook to help increase. Both also cited social media as a powerful tool during the campaign process for fundraising and marketing.

Cole and Levesque said it is difficult to strike a balance between work, life and school. Levesque takes university courses online while continuing to serve as a Girl Scout troop leader. Cole takes both online and traditional classes while taking care of his father’s business and working at his girlfriend’s family’s logging company. This balancing act is assisted, they said by supportive professors, friends, and family.

To students interested in pursuing political careers, Levesque urged them to “focus on things you want to make a change in,” while Cole advised, “Don’t be afraid of politics and find your own path.”

The event was moderated by Leah Abrams ’20 and co-sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy, Women in Politics, Duke College Republicans and Duke Democrats.