ANDREW O’NEAL, SORRY — GOVERNOR ANDREW O’NEAL IS A SENIOR AT CHARLESTON CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL, AND DESPITE ONLY JUST TURNING EIGHTEEN, HE COULDN’T BE MORE INVOLVED IN POLITICS.
Andrew really is the governor, well, youth governor, of West Virginia. He scored the title after applying, interviewing and earning his spot in the national YMCA Youth & Government program. But, this is not your average extracurricular activity. Each year thousands of teens across the country make up these model-governments, get immersive civic experience, debate social issues and propose actual legislation to the state.
The only major difference for Andrew is that he’s doing it all for the first time. “It’s certainly different in this state than it is in the other states’ programs because West Virginia doesn’t really have a program right now,” he said. “But, my role is certainly not limited like some of the other youth governors in the country.”
While states like California are going steady with their 75th cabinet, Andrew undertakes being West Virginia’s first ever youth governor. “I’m here on the ground advocating at the capitol for the program, getting our name out there, getting my name out there,” Andrew explained, “talking with legislators about getting state funding for our program, speaking with senators, and getting federal grants earmarked for the program.”
Now while the novelty of the state’s program could be a challenge, he said there is also a sense of freedom. Andrew was able to hand- select his cabinet of other high schoolers, ensuring the team’s Treasurer or Secretary of State reflect voices from all across West Virginia. As he spreads the message of the program around the state, he’s said he also is getting the chance to connect and collaborate with legislators like Morgantown’s Evan Hansen and former delegate Danielle Walker.
But Andrew isn’t just a teen mouthpiece for the state’s current administration; in fact, his opinions couldn’t be more different than Governor Jim Justice and the vast majority of lawmakers in West Virginia.
“The biggest [political focus] for me is energy — specifically, green energy,” Andrew explained. “I think our state’s been one of the top energy producers in our country for a long time, and I don’t see any reason for that to change. I think we can still be that — just with renewable energy.” For a state with coal attached to its identity, this is just one of many progressive swings Andrew and the youth cabinet are taking. But Andrew says many of these ‘radical’ views reflect the opinions of most young people growing up in West Virginia.
The LGBTQ+ community was another hot talking points in the state’s most recent legislative session, but once more the youth cabinet was on the opposite side of the voting majority. “Many of the anti-LGBTQ bills that they have introduced, and will definitely continue to reintroduce in the future, totally disregard so many West Virginians,” Andrew said.
“Especially young people,” he continued. “There’s almost no support among young people for bills like this.”
Another piece of legislation from this session that Andrew was vehemently opposed to, Senate Bill 10, allows people with concealed carry permits to take firearms onto public colleges and university campuses. Before it was signed into law on March 1, Andrew joined dozens of other students and gave a passionate testimony in opposition.
“The people that came to the hearing and spoke, like myself, were the people that actually are being impacted by this bill,” Andrew said. “The fact that legislators choose to ignore that is the most frustrating part. The lives that they impact, they don’t care.”
As he is about to graduate high school and head to West Virginia University, Andrew joins thousands of other students whose college experience will be altered by this legislation. But graduation day isn’t going to keep him from staying in politics. “I am hopefully going to be pursuing Student Government, and I’ll continue to try to stay involved in my community after college too,” he said. “I’m hopefully going to attend law school.”
Andrew said it is never too early to get civically engaged. “Help out with campaigns and candidates that you feel passionate about and do your research about candidates,” he said. “Even if you can’t vote for them, you can still advocate for them and their policies. Eighteen is just a number. Advocacy can start at any age.”
The youth governor may even try his hand at adult governor one day. But, it might not be in West Virginia. “Certainly, I do want to run for office one day. I’m still struggling with whether that be in this state,” Andrew explained. “I certainly want to help out the state as much as I can, but it’s hard for people, especially with my political views, to make change in the state when you have such a big wave to go against.”
Andrew said that, as a young person, living in the state can constantly feel like going up against that wave. “It’s often said that West Virginia’s biggest export is our children and teens,” he said. From talking with Andrew, and hearing just how passionate some of these young politicians are, keeping those exports from leaving requires one thing: start listening to the youth.