During a recent committee hearing, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler was outlining to lawmakers why the university says it needs $148 million in additional state dollars, when one lawmaker asked how the U was coming along in a pledge to cut administrative expenses.
"Could you talk about some of the ways you've been making progress toward the $90 million in administrative cuts?" wondered freshman Rep. Drew Christensen, a Republican with more than a passing interest in the answer. When he's not legislating, the 21-year-old Christensen is a senior studying political science at Kaler's university.
Kaler answered, explaining that the U has streamlined some operations since pledging in 2013 to cut $90 million in administrative expenses by 2019.
The symmetry of the brief exchange was notable though. Christensen, a newly elected legislator and one of the youngest in the country, said that during his time serving on student government, he railed against high administrative expenses. Now, he's learning the maneuverings of the Minnesota Legislature in between homework assignments for his online algebra class (the only course he's taking this semester).
Christensen won 56 percent, or nearly 7,500 votes, last fall to represent Burnsville in the Minnesota House. He's been in the job for three months. He's not the youngest legislator in the country. That distinction goes to 18-year-old Sara Blair of West Virginia.
Christensen took an early interest in politics, working on U.S. Rep. John Kline's congressional campaign. He also was active in his campus College Republicans chapter. His committee assignments include education, higher education and, despite his youth, aging and long-term care policy.
"He brings an unexpected — because of his age — depth of knowledge when it comes to understanding bills and the process," said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton.
Erickson, a nine-term representative and chairwoman of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee, sits next to Christensen on the House floor and said working with him has proved valuable.
"I don't think my mentoring is going to be as much as maybe he'll mentor me, giving insights into his generation's thinking," she said.
Christensen has sponsored 13 pieces of legislation so far, including one that would allow for electronic filing of paperwork for cases heard through the Office of Administrative Hearings.
"It's kind of a small thing, but it's going to make things easier for a lot of people," he said. "Frankly, it's kind of ridiculous that we even have to have a bill to change the law to allow that, but … we're moving a state office into the 21st century."
Christensen recalls that during the campaign, a "handful" of voters would remark on his age.
"I frame it as an asset because I see it as an asset," he said. "I bring a unique perspective … and I think that's an important thing to have in the Legislature, a variety of perspectives, whether that's age or location, or whatever it is."