Jacob Bachmeier wasn’t old enough to open the campaign bank account when he announced his bid for House District 28 last year. Neither was his high school friend and campaign manager, Daniel Almas.
“I couldn’t get a bank account because I was 17,” Bachmeier said. “We went to the bank on his 18th birthday so we could file our initial paperwork.”
When the teen Democrat is sworn in as a Representative for Havre’s House District 28, he will be the youngest serving state officeholder in the country. His 19th birthday is in January, making him just a few months too old to break national and state records set by officials who were so young they could not vote for themselves in the primaries.
Montana has elected several legislators on the edge of 20 or just past it.
Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney was 22 when he began his first legislative term in 1977, former Secretary of State Bob Brown was 22 when he entered the 1971 session, this year’s state auditor candidate Jesse Laslovich entered the 2001 Legislature at 19, and former Laurel Rep. Sarah Laszloffy was 21 at her 2013 swearing-in. The youngest Montanan to serve in state office was Jack Uhde of Kalispell, who turned 18 a few weeks before his 1976 election to the House.
It is often difficult for college students or people early in their careers to commit the time to serve, especially in states with annual legislative sessions. But Montana's 90-day sessions every two years make it more manageable for people from a wider variety of careers and ages to serve.
In 2015, the average age of a Montanan was 48 while the average age of a legislator was 57. Millennials held 6 percent of legislative seats that year although they accounted for 29 percent of the state population, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Bachmeier is too young to even be considered a millennial. Nonetheless, he believes he is capable and his voice is valuable.
“My perspective as a freshman in college is really important in making sure other generations understand what we’re going through,” he said, calling his election an important step in encouraging more people his age to engage in governance. “Young people can know if they want to run for office they can and that they can win. Their voice can be heard and they can make an impact.”
Bachmeier’s first bid for public office arguably started with a chance meeting in the grocery store parking lot.
Until a few months ago, Bachmeier had worked as a bag boy at Gary and Leo’s IGA in Havre. There, he carried out groceries for Greg Jergeson, a longtime state senator and Democrat from Chinook who was in the middle of his final campaign in 2014.
“You’re Senator Jergeson, aren’t you?” Bachmeier recalled saying.
“Yes, I am,” Jergeson responded.
“I’m a fan,” Bachmeier said, talking himself into a volunteer position on Jergeson’s campaign.
“As we got better acquainted, I found out his great-grandfather and I had served together in the Legislature,” Jergeson said.
Charles “Rex” Manuel was elected to the House in 1973. Jergeson joined the Senate in 1975. In 1987, the Fairfield Democrat asked a favor of Jergeson: Would you pick my granddaughter to be a page? He did. It was Bachmeier’s mother, who would later become a public-school teacher.
Jergeson had many teens work with his campaigns over the years. He often shared advice first given to him by his own mentor, Francis Bardanouve of Harlem, one of the state’s longest serving-legislators. Jergeson turned 24 just a few days before starting his first legislative session in 1975, setting the record as the state’s youngest senator. When he later spoke to high school government classes or worked with teen volunteers like Bachmeier, Jergeson encouraged them to consider running for office while they were still young.
“Jake is the only one to take me up on it,” he said.
Bachmeier saw no reason to wait.
“I’m impatient,” he said, chuckling. “I have these ideas. What’s the use in waiting 20 or 30 years to express those ideas?”
He volunteered with Jergeson’s failed 2014 campaign and later was elected Vice Chairman of the Hill County Democratic Party. He attended state officer conventions and learned more about the party’s work statewide. He filled a spreadsheet with the names of legislators he admired, links to news stories about their work and contact information so he could call them later.
In 2015, he approached Almas in the hallway at Havre High School and asked him to be his campaign treasurer. Although Bachmeier knew Almas had little interest in politics beyond voting, he had known him since preschool and respected his work ethic.
“He’s going to be my campaign manager when I run to become governor,” Bachmeier joked, sitting with Almas in a study room at Montana State University Northern where they both are students.
“I’ll probably be his campaign manager again, but I don’t know if I’ll get much more into politics than that,” Almas said. “We don’t have the exact same political views.”
“It’s not so much a stark difference, but on some issues there’s a couple degrees of difference,” Bachmeier said. “I’m pro-gun but I would say he’s more pro-gun than I am.”
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“I’m more of a moderate conservative and he’s more the moderate liberal so there is that little space there where we do butt heads,” Almas agreed.
Looking at the national landscape, Bachmeier wishes more politicians would be consensus-builders as he hopes to be. He also is frustrated by people who do not respect public offices if their candidate loses, something he saw with President Barack Obama and now president-elect Donald Trump.
“This country has become increasingly divided over the years, and I’m not that old,” he said. “When I was 6 years old watching George Bush and John Kerry debate, they respected each other. They had a level of decorum. Even when one lost, the parties came together on some issues and got things done.”
One recent day, Bachmeier stopped by his grandparents’ house to talk about his early interest in politics.
“Hello, Representative,” Vickie Jacobsen said, walking toward the door for a hug. “Well, did you have a busy day?”
“Yeah, nonstop. I was up pretty early this morning,” Bachmeier said, explaining he woke up at 5 a.m. to do homework, took calls from colleagues about bills he might carry and spent hours doing research about the issues.
As Jacobsen went into a nearby room, her husband Cliff said, “She’s a typical grandma. She's got a mementos stack."
She returned with selections from her scrapbook file. As each piece was passed around the dining-room table, Bachmeier's grandparents and parents, Randy and Christine, shared stories.
Vickie Jacobsen held a class photo of 8-year-old Bachmeier in a red, button-up shirt, tie and glasses. She says he wanted to dress like "Mr. Politician" every day.
When he was 5, a book about the presidents was at the top of his Christmas wish list. Around the same time, he started studying a scrapbook about his great-grandfather, Manuel. He plans to keep the thick tome of newspaper clippings and photos in his Helena desk.
Cliff Jacobsen held a Havre Daily News photo of Bill Clinton speaking at a March 2008 rally during Hillary’s first presidential bid. Bachmeier had been standing at the back of the MSU-Northern gymnasium. When people in the packed crowd realized he wanted an autograph, they passed the 10-year-old over their heads and set him down at the railing near the stage's edge before the former president entered the room. The autograph now hangs on his bedroom wall.
His parents said they were not surprised when he told them about his plan to run for the Legislature. But they did worry.
“I was telling Randy, ‘We’ve got to figure out a way to get Jacob to not do this because it’s brutal. Politics can be brutal,’” his mother said. “We talked for a couple minutes and just shook our heads. No. No. There’s just no stopping him. He’s going to do it. This is what he was born to do.”
He woke up earlier and went to bed later so he could fit homework around campaign duties. He sometimes answered emails from the press during class rather than doing course work. Bachmeier said campaign volunteers were aged “16 to 65” and together they knocked on thousands of doors in the district with almost 10,000 residents. After a long day, he recharged by spending time with his four younger sisters or his older brother, taking trips to the park or wrestling.
Cliff Jacobsen said so many campaign signs filled his garage that there was no room left for his car.
“I just thought he must be crazy. And I literally thought that way for quite a while,” he said, turning to look at Bachmeier as he spoke. “I thought you had zero chance. But the closer it got, especially after the primaries, there was a point, about six weeks before the election, I thought, ‘That kid’s gonna get in.’”
In May, Bachmeier received 656 votes, beating his primary opponent, former English professor Will Rawn, by 100 votes.
The New York Times ran a photo showing Bachmeier and Almas celebrating the win, pumping fists in the air. Young Bernie Sanders supporters in Florida who also were running for office saw the photo and invited Bachmeier to join their Facebook group. It turned out that he already knew one of them from a massive multiplayer online roleplaying game in which thousands of teens run a mock federal government.
In real life, Bachmeier campaigned on three core issues: education, infrastructure and public lands. Improved access to mental health care became a fourth plank of his platform as he started to talk with community members about three high school friends who had each attempted suicide. He met with Jergeson to refine his talking points ahead of a public debate with incumbent Republican Stephanie Hess. This would be different than all the debates he won in high school competitions.
“The stakes are a lot higher,” he said. “It’s easy to get up in front of a room of people and give a speech when there’s not going to be any real consequences. With politics, you’re dealing with real people.”
Last month, Bachmeier unseated Hess, securing 2,231 votes to her 1,943. Again, a Havre Daily News photographer captured the moment. Bachmeier stood on the Hill County Courthouse steps cheering as Almas shook an open bottle of sparkling cider.
In Helena one afternoon last month, Bachmeier sat at his desk in the House, a seat in the middle of the right section near the front. While talking about how he was inspired by his great-grandfather, he swiveled his chair and pointed to a desk in the row behind him, No. 36.
“He sat in that very desk right there, the one on the end there.”
Bachmeier reflected on his first caucuses at the Capitol and his first days of training.
“There’s lot of learning to do yet," he said. “I definitely would like to term-out in the House. Whether I want to run in for another office in the future, it’s too early to say."