College student turns Wake County politician

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As of Nov. 2, North Carolina State University’s Jenna Wadsworth is not only a political science student, she’s the youngest elected official currently serving in North Carolina and the youngest female office holder in state history.

Serving as one of Wake County’s five Soil and Water Conservation District supervisors isn’t one of local politics’ glamour jobs, but Wadsworth still sounds excited talking about the moment she learned the results, while at a Democratic Party post-election gathering.
“They told me to stand in front of the projector screen, pointing to my lead in the race,” Wadsworth said. “People looked at me — I’m a 21 year old female, short, petite. It was an incredibly awesome feeling to say ‘That’s me!’”

Unofficial results
David P. Adams: 70,438 votes, 26.02 percent
Marshall Harvey: 85,922 votes, 31.74 percent.
Jennifer Austin Wadsworth: 111,494, votes, 41.19 percent.
Write-In 2,832 votes, 1.05 percent.

Wadsworth turns 22 Nov. 16 and will attend her first board meeting as a supervisor Dec. 9. As a member of the public, she said, she began attending meetings even before deciding to run.

Jenna Wadsworth, left, North Carolina’s youngest woman elected to office, watches results come in on election night at a Democratic Party event. Photo by Will Huntsberry.

The conservation district’s website states that its mission is using funding from state and federal sources to conserve Wake County’s soil, water and natural resources. Rather than regulating or monitoring compliance, the district does its work through incentive and educational program: Working with farmers on soil conservation, paying farmers to keep their land out of development and promoting awareness about Raleigh water resources in schools.

Wadsworth said the district is also interested in the environmental problems of Falls Lake, a source of Raleigh’s drinking water. She said when the legislature reviews proposals for improving Falls Lake water quality, she wants the district to have a seat at the table. She hopes that having served as an aide to State Rep. Lucy Allen, a former chair of the House Environmental Committee, will help with that.

“I’ve been involved in politics since I was 17,” Wadsworth said. “I love North Carolina and I want to do what I can to better my community. A really easy way to do that is through politics — that’s where laws are made, that’s where citizens have input.”
In high school, Wadsworth said, she became president of the North Carolina Association of Teen Democrats and worked on political campaigns. She said the possibility of running for office someday has been in the back of her mind for a while, “but I did not expect it to be this early. A good friend told me you don’t choose the time, the time chooses you.”

The district board includes three elected supervisors and two appointees, all unpaid. Two of the elected seats came open this year.
Wadsworth’s campaign efforts included a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and appearances at Church Groups, Sierra Club gatherings, street festivals and citizen advisory group meetings. After her classes wrapped up in the early afternoon, she said, she’d usually hit two to five events over the rest of the day.

“It was incredibly exhausting, my professors were incredibly understanding,” Wadsworth said. “I was taking 18 hours this semester … There were a lot of sleepless nights. It was all worth it.”

She added that given the Republicans’ successes this year, it may have been lucky for her that the board race is non-partisan.
Wadsworth said that she ran for the board because having grown up on a local farm, she appreciates how important the district’s work is. She’s particularly excited about the agency’s efforts to make locally grown food more available in Raleigh stores and restaurants and to preserve farmland despite development pressure.

“The real estate community, homeowners associations, development interests are very powerful as Wake continues to be one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation,” Wadsworth said. Protecting farms, she added, not only preserves part of Wake history, but water filtering through cropland ends up healthier than the runoff from paved areas.

A pre-law double major in political science and woman and gender studies, Wadsworth said she wouldn’t rule out a run for another office down the road. But for now, she said, the Soil and Water Conservation District will occupy all her attention: “Doing a good job in this office, that’s my priority for the next four years.”

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