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S.C. gubernatorial candidate says there should be age limits for elected officials

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

Who runs this country? Ask Joe Cunningham, a former Democratic congressman from South Carolina, and he'll say it's the elderly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE CUNNINGHAM: Have you ever noticed that politicians hardly ever retire? Our country and our state are being run by a geriatric oligarchy - people who stay in office way past their prime...

DAVIS: Cunningham is now running for governor, and he launched that campaign ad this week. He's proposing not just term limits, but age limits for anyone who holds elected office in South Carolina. Cunningham is 40 years old, and he joins us now to talk about his proposal. Welcome to the show.

CUNNINGHAM: Hey, Susan. Thanks for having me.

DAVIS: So you're proposing a 72-year-old age limit for public office in your state. How did you decide on that specific age?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, look; you know, as we said in that video, in South Carolina, judges have to retire at age 72. And so if you think about that, if a person is too old to interpret the law, should they not be too old to make the law as well? And looking at where we are - I mean, folks look at the D.C., and they realize the age of leadership on both sides of the aisle. And if you think it's bad in D.C., I want to point your attention to South Carolina, where we have the oldest governor in our state's history. I mean, he's been a politician literally longer than I've been alive. And, you know, this is - I refer to as a geriatric oligarchy, the people who are seeking just to hold on to power. But it's about allowing a new generation to emerge. And we have incredible potential on the Democratic side for new people to rise up and to take more of an active leadership role. However, some people are just standing in the way.

DAVIS: You mentioned your opponent, incumbent Governor Henry McMaster. He's 75 years old. I think one of the questions, though, is if the people of South Carolina want newer, younger talent in office, aren't they free to do that and do that under voting under the existing system?

CUNNINGHAM: Let's acknowledge how tough it is to beat an incumbent and, more or less somebody who's been in office for, you know, 30, 40, 50 years. The advantages of somebody, you know, with the backing of being in office for so long is difficult. We need to acknowledge that. And the more and more power they amass, the harder they're going to work to try to retain that.

DAVIS: Don't you see some risk here? I mean, talking about age - there's a lot of older folks in your state. It's one of the older states in the country. Do you risk alienating the very voters you need to win this race?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, what we're proposing here is age limits for public office, term limits, you know, to combat the people who stay in office way past their prime. That's a distinct advantage in talking about, you know, older people in general. And, you know, if you talk to folks in their 60s, 70s, 80s, they feel as strongly as I do, if not stronger. You know, the folks I talk to say, you know, yes, we've had our time. You know, we want new leadership. Everyone across the board wants new leadership.

DAVIS: You've already said that you do not believe that President Biden should run for reelection in 2024 because of his age. I mean, you're a Democrat. Are you willing to let your own party lose the advantage that many of these older incumbents usually have in races?

CUNNINGHAM: I don't see it that way. I think that we can energize our party and excite people and bring new folks into the fold by having a candidate who's younger and, you know, can excite the base and provide a new vision because, like, we're looking to the future. We're a very large country with a lot of political talent. I think most people are yearning for other alternatives.

DAVIS: That's former Congressman Joe Cunningham. He's a Democratic candidate for governor in South Carolina. Thanks for your time.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you so much, Susan. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.