Some people seem to be born political activists. Others are late to a political party or cause.
Whatever the reason, statistics support what can be seen at a glance at the annual Northwest Raspberry Festival, the Northwest Washington Fair and at candidate call centers: Senior citizens make up the most politically engaged age group. In the most recent presidential election, 72 percent of all citizens 65 and over voted, compared to 62 percent of the total voting-age population and just 41 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds.
At the Bellingham conservation group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, citizen committees work to help protect aquatic reserves at Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay.
“We could not run our reserve program without retired people,” says Wendy Steffensen, North Sound baykeeper at RE Sources. “They provide the bulk of our committee work.”
“They have the time, energy and interest to attend meetings, write letters, do good research or come in and do data entry, if that’s what’s needed,” she says. “These people just want to help, and they do a good job because they’re motivated.”
At times, the media has misrepresented seniors as getting involved mainly on behalf of age-related issues, such as Medicare and Social Security. Political scientists long ago dispelled that myth. While seniors are more Republican than the population as a whole, their interests and preferences are as varied as any age group.
As one political scientist put it, in the appropriate academic tone, “attitudinal differences between age groups are far less impressive than those within age groups.”
The long-held political truism can be put another way: You’ll find seniors on both sides of the political spectrum.
That’s definitely the case in Whatcom County.
Marie Hitchman received a clutch of awards for her environmentalism in 2011, the same year she turned 80. Her awards included an honor received at the RE Sources Environmental Heroes Awards Banquet, keynoted that year by Earth Day founder Dennis Hayes.
“When I turned 80 the awards came flying down from heaven,” Hitchman, now 83, said in an interview earlier this year. “If you survive to 80, boy, we better write about you.”
Count Hitchman among those seniors who, when they reached retirement age, simply continued on the same political track they’d always been on. In the 1960s, Hitchman raised some eyebrows among male city leaders when she founded Bellingham Day Care Center shortly after coming to town. It was the city’s first preschool for working mothers.
As Hitchman told it, one official asked her, “What do you women think you’re doing? Don’t you think you should be home taking care of your children?”
Hitchman, a botanist, has devoted much of her political work to environmental issues. She was fighting this summer to gain access to the site of a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point to survey what lives there.
Cherry Point already has two refineries and an aluminum smelter.
“We have what we have in those three industries, but I don’t want to see any more,” she says. “I don’t want to see it destroyed.”
While politics has been a lifelong pursuit for Hitchman, Jerry Janeway stepped into the political arena just this summer, when he volunteered for four hours at the Republicans’ booth at the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden.
“I’ve been a person who stays on top of politics,” says Janeway, 74. “I had never really been active, but I always voted in every election.”
Janeway was, in fact, motivated by an “age issue,” specifically the rising cost of his medical plan, which he linked to the passage of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“When you’re on a fixed income, you’ve got only so much money to live off of,” Janeway says. “Things are getting too expensive, and I am worried about what’s going to happen with the medical plan.”
Issues on the agenda of AARP aren’t the only ones that motivate Janeway.
“I’m an advocate of the Second Amendment,” he says, referring to the right of individuals to keep and bear arms. “I just started thinking about what’s going on in this country, as far as politics. ... I thought I could get in, and find out what’s going on here and help out.”
Janeway’s first experience as a political volunteer was a positive one, he says.
“I like to talk to people. I met people I had read about in the paper,” he says. “I talked to various people running for office. My thinking falls in line with a lot of these guys.”
Janeway says he will continue to volunteer for Republicans.
“I’ll go down and meet with the party and see where I fit, and work from there,” he says. “I think more people should get involved.”
Rather than choosing sides, some politically active seniors try to make sure both sides are heard.
Jo Collinge’s attraction to the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County stemmed from her background as a newspaper reporter. She serves as the league’s vice president.
Collinge never had a chance to be active in politics, even though it had always been an interest of hers —“sort of in the blood,” as she put it. She worked as a reporter covering Detroit City Hall, then as a foreign service official with the U.S. State Department, and later as a public affairs staffer at Western Washington University. In those careers, activism was either inappropriate or outright forbidden.
“But when I retired I said, ‘OK, now!’” says Collinge, 76. She tried partisan politics for about a year, but it didn’t suit her.
“I was trained as a reporter to look at both sides of the story,” she says. “I didn’t care for the partisanship on either side, and I still don’t care for it very much. The league was the perfect thing for me.”
The league fits the mold; its membership consists largely of seniors.
“I think that’s true of most voluntary organizations,” Collinge says. “There just comes a time when you’ve got a little bit more time, usually starting in your 50s, maybe getting your toe in.”
“I think you begin to realize what the stakes are in voting and in informing yourself about the vote,” she says. “What’s important to your community and politics can’t be separated.”