A Young Player in an Old Man’s Game: NC Senate Candidate Phil Feagan

For most of us active in HeadCount, two of our biggest passions are music and politics. These two areas can bring people together or divide them. And while American politics seem as sharply divided as ever, there may be a new wave of young, energetic politicians willing to do something that has become a bit of a four letter word: compromise. According to the non-profit organization Young Elected Leaders Network, Young Elected Officials (YEOs) between the ages of 18 and 35 represent 4.8 percent of all elected leaders in congressional gubernatorial, legislative, and city and county commission seats in the United States. On the other hand, according to the National Association of State Legislatures, 49.7% of state legislators nationwide are between 50 and 64 years old.

Meet Phil Feagan, a 30-year-old candidate for North Carolina Senate District 47 in the western mountains of the state. When he started running this spring he was still in law school at the University of North Carolina. Phil is exactly what HeadCount encourages: young people taking a role in politics. Since HeadCount is non-partisan, this interview focuses solely on the importance of young people participating in democracy, regardless of party affiliation. Here’s what he had to say:

HeadCount: Let’s start with a little background, how did you first get into politics?

Phil Feagan: Well, I’ve always been interested in politics – partly because my family was involved at the local level and partly because I thought this was important stuff that could really impact people and was worth paying attention to. I grew up in a family that believed in community and serving that community, and part of that was politics. They were really before my time, but my family supported people like Terry Sanford and Skipper Bowles and Jim Hunt and I always identified with that same moderate-progressive viewpoint. I volunteered for campaigns growing up and got more involved in college. UNC has a long tradition of student involvement in politics and I jumped into it, eventually serving as the state president of the college Dems. I had thought I would go to law school right after undergrad, but I was offered a campaign job following graduation and I took it. The candidate I thought I might work for after the campaign lost, but I lucked out and landed in Congressman David Price’s Washington office. I ended up working there for almost five years, serving as a policy aide and press secretary. It was a great job and a great office – it’s a pretty remarkable to see the Capitol dome walking into work each morning and feel like you’re contributing in some way. But I didn’t want to eventually be a lobbyist or be in DC forever – I wanted to be in North Carolina – so I went back to school. And then this year, as I’m finishing up and looking forward to a nonpolitical job, I was upset with what the legislature was doing, particularly with education, and I thought somebody needed to step up. So I decided to throw myself out there.

So it’s always been a passion of yours. But still taking the leap from volunteer or even campaign staffer to candidate is big. Did you have hesitations?

Oh, of course. This is definitely not what I thought I would be doing this year. A few people have asked me if I’m crazy, and I don’t have a good come-back for that. You probably have to be at least a little crazy to do this. It’s a big decision to run for office. I came into it knowing what to expect, but it’s still rough. There’s a huge time commitment, obviously, and asking people for money isn’t much fun. So there was a hesitation, and a lot of consideration. But I decided that this year was too important and this seat was too competitive to not give people a choice.

As you go from town to town on your campaign, are people shocked to see a young candidate like yourself?

First of all, thanks for calling 30 young. I appreciate that. Actually, everyone has been really receptive thus far. I get a “you look young” comment every once in a while, but people seem more excited than cautious about a young candidate. I think people – regardless of age or party – are hungry for some new energy and fresh thinking. They want to get past the same tired arguments and bickering, and some new leadership is needed to make that happen.

You talk a lot about compromise in your campaigning. What do you think about the current polarization of politics in America?

I’m sick and tired of the nastiness and polarization in politics today, and I think most people would agree. I’m particularly frustrated at the focus on ideology and party over results. There are a lot of politicians who aren’t trying to solve problems but instead score some points for their team no matter the cost to everyone else. Don’t get me wrong – everyone has guiding principles that inform their political beliefs that you shouldn’t abandon. But at some point you have to be pragmatic, seek out compromise, and work together to actually achieve something for the people you represent. I want to be a moderate and civil voice in the legislature that rejects the extremes and finds real ways to move the state forward – particularly in education and economic development.

Well I definitely agree that everyone, Republicans and Democrats, seem pretty tired of the polarization too. Now on a different side of things - I understand there is a family relationship with a HeadCount supporter, the amazing Warren Haynes.

(laughs) Well, yeah, we’re cousins, though I can’t claim any particularly close kinship. Our grandmothers were sisters, so I guess that makes us second cousins. I grew up knowing some of his aunts and uncles really well and I’ve met his mom a few times at family events but I’ve never actually had the pleasure of meeting him. If any of his musical talent came from his mom’s side it definitely didn’t make it to me. (laughs) It’s great that a number of bands he plays in work with HeadCount.

That’s pretty cool. So is half of your family active in politics and the other half music?

(laughs) No no, nothing like that.

So as you know, HeadCount really encourages young people to get involved in politics, and reaches them primarily through live music events. If you’re elected, you will be the youngest senator in the state and second youngest member of the entire legislature. What advice do you have for a young person who wants to get more involved in politics?

I say do it. There are all sorts of opportunities to get involved in politics. No campaign can ever have too many volunteers. If you’re a student, volunteering for a campaign can often help you get an internship, and internships can lead to jobs. Even if you don’t want to work in government, take advantage of internship opportunities with state government or Congress – you’ll learn a lot and make some connections that can help you in any line of work. The same is often true for non-students volunteering for any level of campaign. Know that there’s not a whole lot of glamour or glory, and you’re probably not going to make much money while doing it. But what you do get is the opportunity to contribute to something greater than yourself and hopefully help some people improve their lives. That’s a pretty special opportunity, and what makes all the bad aspects of politics you have to put up with worth it.

Definitely. Alright one last question – Gov’t Mule or The Allman Brothers Band?

(laughs) I’m not going to go there.