College students are typically idealists who hope to somehow change the society in which they were raised.
This year, Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, a recent college graduate, is attempting to do just that. But though many student activists are generally liberal in their views, Westrom is working to give the state Legislature a more conservative flair.
Westrom, 23, is unlike any state legislator to come before him — he is completely blind. He lost his sight in a car accident when he was 14, and though some might see this as a liability, Westrom said he takes it in stride.
Although Westrom is the first blind state legislator, he is not the first blind lawmaker to come out of Minnesota. Thomas Schall was a U.S. House and Senate member from 1915 to 1935, and was also blind.
After winning his seat in last November’s election, Westrom’s first challenge as a legislator came well before the session opened in January. He had to learn his way around the maze of halls and tunnels at the Capitol, a task he accomplished without the benefit of a guide dog.
“I spent two-and-a-half days here in December, learning my way around,” Westrom said. “I learned through repetition.”
Westrom said he listens to the echoes in the hallway, and the unique sounds of different floors to help keep his bearing.
Despite the difficulty of learning the Capitol layout, Westrom said it is simple compared to past experiences.
“This is a cakewalk compared to a college campus,” he said.
Westrom graduated from Bemidji State University in 1995 as a political science major. He said he grew up with a love for debate and political discussion, as well as studying both sides of an issue.
Because of the quick and shifting nature of legislative government, there is not enough time to translate bills into Braille, so a legislative aid sits with Westrom in session and reads to him the pertinent bills. He said he also listens to the text of bills on the Internet with a computer that has synthesized speech capabilities.
Westrom said college students’ idealism usually leads them to take more liberal ideologies, but if they are truly sick of big government they should be conservative.
“The younger generation needs to stand up and ask questions,” he said. “We have a $5 trillion national debt. We are spending our future away. We can’t afford the spending habits we’ve had in the last 40 years.”
Unfortunately, he said, most college students think the government can provide solutions to problems they observe in society. “The programs sound great, but are awfully expensive.
“Democrats have a government knows best’ mentality that they know how to spend your money better than you,” Westrom said. He favors commercial expansion in the private sector and a reduction of growth in the public realm.
Along with his belief that the government should be financially frugal, he also subscribes to social conservatism. He has already sponsored bills to eliminate partial-birth abortions and to make same-sex marriages illegal in Minnesota.
He said that state government should have more power than the national government on these and other issues.
But Westrom is also careful to keep on top of legislation that is more specific to his constituents.
Westrom represents House District 13A in west-central Minnesota, which is largely a rural farming district.
Bills that are important to people in his district, Westrom said, include an elimination of sales tax on farm machinery that is used to produce food. That bill passed through committee Monday and will be sent to the House floor in the near future.
Prison reform is another key issue to Westrom, as his district includes Appleton, where the state’s only privately run prison is located. He would like to see legislation eliminating some amenities, such as Internet access, in prisons.
Westrom won his first term in office by securing the open seat that was vacated by DFL Rep. Chuck Brown, who held the seat for 12 years.
Westrom said early fund-raising helped propel him to victory. He announced his decision to run for office in December 1995, months before Brown announced he was not running for re-election, he said. The early fund-raising and name recognition that Westrom received kept other potential Republican challengers from getting in the race, he added.
His, age was not a factor with voters during his campaign, Westrom said.
“People were more concerned with my ability to understand the issues that are going on around here,” he said.
Westrom, who is the second-youngest state legislator, is one of only a handful of representatives that are under the age of 30. But he said he hopes younger Minnesotans will be better represented in the future.
“Society is made up of all different age groups, and it is reasonable to have representatives from all the different age groups,” he said.
Only 22-year-old Rep. Doug Stang, R-Cold Spring, is younger than Westrom.
Rep. Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, the House minority leader, said Westrom has brought an element of enthusiasm and youth to the House Republicans. Sviggum said legislators don’t look to Westrom for leadership now, but they do ask him questions relating to higher education and to farming.
“You can’t help but feel enthusiasm when you talk to him,” Sviggum said. “He is dedicated. He wants to serve his district. I don’t even notice his blindness. He will be a real leader for years to come.”