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(photo by Melody Hanatani)

DOWNTOWN — It’s a good time to be the head of a group of young Democrats, leading the pack of political activists when there is a Democratic president and the national party has numbers in the legislature.

But that’s the life that Katherine Hennigan has lived since the 26-year-old Santa Monica resident was named the president of the Los Angeles County Young Democrats, taking the reins of a political organization whose members were actively involved in getting out the youth vote during the 2008 election.

“People are motivated to stay involved and I think the Obama experience really let young voters know how important their vote was,” Hennigan, who works as a planning deputy for L.A. Councilman Jack Weiss’ office, said.

While Hennigan came from a civically engaged family — her mother was a long-time deputy district attorney with the county and grandmother worked for the city of Los Angeles — she never became actively involved in politics until after graduating from Loyola Marymount University in 2004.

She began working for former L.A. Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski as a council aide, engaged directly in constituent services, which entailed everything from answering phone calls to attending community meetings. It was at Miscikowski’s office where Hennigan met Kristen Lonner, another staff member who was the president of the LACYD.

“It was important to me to recruit people I saw as good leaders,” Lonner, who is now one of the principals of political consulting firm Cerrell Associates, said. “When I came to Kate, it was more about increasing our membership as well as our leadership capabilities and I saw potential in her.”

It didn’t take many meetings for Hennigan to be hooked.

She has steadily ascended to the top over the past five years, serving as the activities director, vice president of programming and now president.

The organization was founded in 1973 by a group that included Congressman Howard Berman and Henry Waxman and former Los Angeles Controller Rick Tuttle. There are currently more than 900 members in the organization, their ages ranging from 18 to 35 years old.

Hennigan, who began her two-year-term in January, has big dreams of continuing the momentum with youth activism from the previous election, hoping to continue increasing the LACYD’s membership. The organization’s fundraising efforts last year grossed more than $30,000, a figure that is unheard of for political groups its type and size, Hennigan said.

“I think Obama really just lit a fire under young Democrats and they were just eager to get involved in any way,” she said.

She added that youth involvement in politics is much different from when she was in high school and college, a time when voting was considered activism.

“I remember in high school and even the first part of college I was really into the (Bill) Clinton campaign but I couldn’t vote,” she said. “I had a very political family but it was never ingrained in people.

“It was never a cool thing to be a part of.”

The organization will be busy over the next year as there are several more elections scheduled in the county, including the runoff contest between Weiss and Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich for L.A. City Attorney.

Hennigan’s rise to the presidency was a welcomed turn-of-events for Lonner, who didn’t think her former colleague when recruited would one day lead the organization.

She credits the LACYD’s growth to Hennigan.

“It’s grown from a place of being kind of a job search organization to really being valuable in Los Angeles for its young leaders,” Lonner said.

Following her term, Hennigan said she will remain active in the organization but also plans to attend law school, following in the footsteps of her mother and working in public service.

She recalls going to court with her mother as a child and sitting in dinners with victims of crimes to go over cases.

“I think I realized at a much younger age that there were a lot of things that needed to be fixed,” she said. “When I was at LMU, the mission of the school is to realize that a fulfilled happy life is all about giving back and I really agree.”

melodyh@smdp.com

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