She Runs The Democratic Party In A Super-Red State (& She's 26)

Courtesy of Kylie Oversen’s Facebook.
When she got elected to her state's House of Representatives in 2012, Kylie Oversen was the second-youngest elected official in the country (another 23 year-old beat her by a couple months) — but she didn't stay in second place for long. Earlier this month, she was named Chairwoman of the Democratic Party in North Dakota, making her the youngest person to hold that position, in either party, in the country. 

We asked her to take a minute out of her very  busy schedule (she also serves in the House of Representatives, and she's in law school) to chat. We asked her about her plans as a Democrat in a deeply conservative state, why her colleagues are so obsessed with restricting abortion, and how she balances her crazy life.

You're 26, and now in a state-wide leadership position. How'd your colleagues react? 
"There was certainly unease from other people about putting someone so young and so new in this position: I’m not part of the party machine, I haven’t been involved for decades like so many of our members have. I take those concerns seriously, but I’ve also done well in past leadership positions, and held my own in the old boys’ club.

"That’s what the North Dakota legislature is: 80% of our body is male and the vast majority are over 50 or 60 years of age. I’m 26, so yes, there was some concern, but I expected that going into it. And, it’s exciting, for me and for the party — a chance to show everyone that North Dakota Democrats are alive and well." 

Now you’re running the Democratic Party in one of the reddest states out there. What are your plans?
"Our first focus is to build a platform that speaks for all North Dakotans — men, women, young, old — to show that we are and continue to be the party of diversity. Specifically, I am excited to speak to young people and to women — in both cases, [as] a minority in elected office.

"I believe that it’s really important that young people wake up and pay attention to government. You did a piece with North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp about bee colonies collapsing (Who'd have known that was an issue?), but that's why it's important for young people to wake up and pay attention. The decisions being made affect our future first and foremost. The future we’re shaping — it’s our future." 

What are some of the issues you'll specifically be prioritizing? 
"For one, North Dakota’s ban on gay marriage will very likely be reversed in court in the coming years — maybe even the coming month, with the Supreme Court decision this spring. That means, there's a very good chance that same-sex couples will be able to marry soon, sooner than anyone expected.

"But, on the other side of the coin, we don’t have protections for gender identity and sexual orientation and housing or unemployment; you can be fired from your job or kicked out of your apartment for who you love. So, you can get married, but then come back and find you’ve lost your job or your house. As a state, we need to address that. It’ll ruffle some feathers among the old guard, but those are the issues of our generation."
Courtesy of Kylie Oversen’s Facebook.
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North Dakota is also a state pushing restrictions on reproductive rights. 
"Yes. Whether I like it or not, reproductive rights have been at the top of the agenda for my entire political career. When I started, I was entirely surprised at how focused the legislature was on restrictive abortion bills. In my first session, I think we had seven different bills on who can access an abortion and for what reason. It was an emotional and frustrating couple weeks when we heard those bills.

"There’s a big disconnect between the voters and the policy makers on this issue. In the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers passed a wide range of laws that restrict providers. And then, in 2014, the voters defeated Measure 1 [an anti-abortion 'personhood' amendment] and we also ousted two lawmakers who championed those bills.

"The thing is: Not a single one of the bills we passed will end abortion. Those bills will make abortion unsafe and less affordable. But, history shows that women, when they are put in difficult situations, will make difficult decisions, decisions that may put their personal health at risk. The real way to limit or end abortion is to provide comprehensive family planning, accessible birth control, and better early education services, so a woman deciding to have a child knows she’ll have access to the support she needs."

You're a State Rep, the Party Chairwoman, and in law school. How insane is your schedule?
"I’ll admit that I don’t have much of a social life right now, particularly during the legislative session. I’ve tried to balance — though I won’t say I’m very great at doing that right now; my boyfriend definitely would say that I’m not [laughs].

"The Sheryl Sandberg Lean In movement is all about telling women, 'You can have it all,' but we don’t ever stop to think about about what that means for your wellbeing — we don't always acknowledge that it’s hard, it’s emotionally taxing, and it does hurt relationships sometimes. I’ve had a harder time connecting with some friends because they don’t understand what I’m doing, I’ve had some difficult family dinners." 

Photo: Mike McCleary/AP Images.
How did you decide to just go for it, to run for office at age 23? 
"I ran for party chair for the same reason I ran for the North Dakota House: Somebody asked me. At first, I thought it was insane — it’s a big role! — but I took some time to think and talk about the role, and just decided to go for it. 

"But, it started when a colleague said, 'I think you’ll be good at this; we’d like you to run.' Studies have shown that’s the way a lot of women end up running for office — someone tells them they’ll be good at it.

"And so, I ran, I was successful, and now I'm in this position that gives me the opportunity to reach out to other women and get them involved. I’ve heard from lots of women who’ve seen me and thought, if she can do it, I can do it. It’s really powerful to put someone in front of them who looks like them, who’s in the same stage of [life] as they are." 

What would you tell other women who are maybe considering running?
"Women imagine there’s some set of qualifications for holding elected office that they don’t have — but that’s not true. I compare the women I know to the people who are serving right now, and lots of them are more qualified than the people we’ve currently got." 
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