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Freshman West Virginia lawmaker, 18, strives to be voice for a generation

| Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, 10:40 p.m.
Photo courtesy of Saira Blair
Saira Blair, 18, of Martinsburg, W. Va., became the nation’s youngest elected lawmaker when she was elected to the state's House of Delegates on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.
Instagram.com/sairablair
PBS films an interview in 18-year-old Saira Blair's bedroom about a week before the election. She won a seat in the House of Delegates with almost 62 percent of the vote in her district.
Instagram.com/sairablair
Saira Blair posts the first sign of her campaign before the May primary.

The night 18-year-old Saira Blair made U.S. political history, she posed for a photo and later posted it on Instagram.

“Thank you for the support everyone,” the West Virginian wrote. “I'm honored to be named the Delegate-Elect for District 59!”

The photo showed Blair and another newly elected Republican, Congressman-elect Alex Mooney, at a victory party at The Inn at Charles Town in Jefferson County. Blair included an emoji of an elephant, the symbol of the GOP.

On Nov. 4, Blair became the nation's youngest elected legislator when she won nearly 62 percent of the vote in her district in the state's Eastern Panhandle. Her youth, gender and conservative platform attracted national attention for the freshman economics major at West Virginia University.

“It is surprising, because sometimes I forget that I'm 18 years old and there's something special about my campaign,” she said. “It's been an amazing opportunity to represent West Virginia and get my views out and to represent my generation, but at the same time, I'm ready to get to work in January.”

Blair was born and raised in Berkeley County, a rural area about 30 miles south of the Pennsylvania line in Bedford County. Her family owns a 200-acre apple orchard near Martinsburg, where she worked as a teenager. Her Instagram bio reads: “Mountaineers are always free,” the translation of the state motto, “Montani semper liberi.”

Her dual role as legislator and college student has led to a unique mix of goals: Blair wants to eliminate taxes on West Virginia businesses, spur job creation, pursue a double major in economics and Spanish and, perhaps, study abroad in Costa Rica or Spain. She'll wrap up the fall semester at WVU, then take a leave of absence in January to serve in the 60-day legislative session.

Blair joins a deliberative body in which this year women accounted for one in five delegates and the median age is about 55. The part-time job pays $20,000 a year.

Voice for millennials

Blair's political experience began when she helped with the campaigns of her father, state Sen. Craig Blair, who served in the House of Delegates. He took his daughters, then 5 and 6, on the trail. She would later proofread his speeches.

It was Blair's experience in a youth government program at the state Capitol in Charleston that spurred her senior-year Republican primary bid against two-term incumbent Larry Kump. She learned that legislators use the program's ideas to write laws.

“Someone from our generation should have a voice in the Legislature,” she said.

When she defeated Kump, Blair was 17, not old enough to vote. In the general election, she beat Layne Diehl, a Democrat.

During her campaign, her friends helped stuff envelopes with letters to supporters from her WVU dorm room. They held signs and shared her messages on Facebook. On her Instagram account, scenes from the campaign trail are mixed with selfies and photos of friends, snacks and accessories.

Amber Semi, a sophomore at Hedgesville High School, which Blair attended, helped during the campaign. She and Blair, who were in show choir together, go ice skating, shopping, hiking or on long drives together because “they're both really big talkers.”

“I'm really proud of her. My whole family is proud of her,” Semi said. “I'm glad she has a mark in history and gets to do what she loves doing.”

Big plans for state

Blair's candidacy drew attention from The Wall Street Journal, Glenn Beck and Teen Vogue. An Instagram shot shows PBS setting up lights, microphones and video equipment in her yellow-walled bedroom.

“It still hasn't really hit me,” she said.

Blair's victory coincides with another for West Virginia Republicans: The party will control both legislative chambers. The GOP has not had control in either chamber since 1932, according to state party officials.

She said the GOP can use the budget to shift priorities.

“Last year, we dipped into our rainy day fund, and on the current path that we're on, we're going to have to do that again,” Blair said.

She believes that lowering the state's corporate net income tax to below the national average, eliminating a business franchise tax, and passing right-to-work laws will attract private-sector development. She campaigned on repealing the Unfair Trade Practices law, a 1939 statute that has increased gas prices in the Eastern Panhandle.

Matt Dailer, director of the West Virginia Republican Party, said Blair will be a key player in party outreach to young voters. This weekend, she is addressing the Ohio-West Virginia Youth Leadership Association.

The GOP has a registration edge among West Virginia's voters in the 18-to-25 age group, Dailer said, but young voters are not staying in the state — a reality legislators hope to reverse by increasing the number of private-sector jobs.

‘You inspire me'

Ideologically, Blair has conservative values often associated with much older Republicans. She is pro-life, a Second Amendment supporter and a fiscal conservative.

“We're branded as the party of old white men, and that's just not true,” Dailer said.

If she is elected to a second term in 2016, Blair said she would graduate a semester late in the winter of 2018. She plans to use her economics education to become a financial adviser.

“I'm a firm believer in term limits, so I don't foresee a career in politics by any means,” she said.

Neither does her father, Craig Blair, who said he's proud of his daughter's accomplishments. Blair, who owns a water treatment business and is a multi-skilled tradesman, doesn't like it when his constituents call him “senator.”

“I want to be able to walk down the street and people know me as Craig Blair,” he said. “But I have to admit, I like being known as Saira Blair's daddy.”

He taught his daughter to be a critical thinker, he said, and to participate. He trusts her to handle media scrutiny. Craig Blair once sponsored state legislation to require drug testing of those who receive public assistance benefits.

“Next thing you know, I was on Fox and CNN,” he said.

When his daughter's story went national, he made sure she would have publicity handlers to take care of scheduling logistics.

“The fact of the matter is she's got a thicker skin than I do,” Craig Blair said. “She goes, ‘Dad, that's today's generation. People say nasty stuff about you on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, and you blow it off and you know you're doing the right thing.' ”

On her Facebook page, out-of-state voters took notice, and Democrats voiced support, even if they do not share her views.

“You inspire me,” wrote a Republican teen in Maryland. A Democrat wrote, “Just to have a young female in this state Legislature seat in W.V. is a winner to me.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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