Steven Ponto was a senior lawyer at a financial services technology company when it was sold in 2009. Some colleagues were relocating to Jacksonville, Fla., the headquarters of the new parent, but he didn’t want to leave the small city outside Milwaukee where he had lived since 1990.
He chose a severance package and considered a second career. Friends encouraged Mr. Ponto to run for mayor of his city, Brookfield, Wis. He spent about $20,000 on the campaign.
“I wanted to bring professionalism to the mayor’s office,” said Mr. Ponto, 68, who also holds a master’s degree in public administration.
In this election year, the two presidential front-runners are both already well past the traditional retirement age. But the interest in running for office among baby boomers may be even more compelling at lower levels, with more people like Mr. Ponto bringing substantial résumés to a second career in politics.
In choosing to run for office, said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government at American University in Washington, “your informal circle matters as much as formal recruitment from elected officials, party leaders or activists.”
The number of positions available is sizable, although their hours, responsibilities and compensation vary widely. In doing research for a 2012 book, “Becoming a Candidate,” Ms. Lawless found just over 18,000 elected officials at the state level in legislatures. She identified a further 320,000 elected officials in municipal, town and county governments. A further 180,000 serve as elected school district and special district officials.
Older people are filling an increasing number of them, in many ways an extension of their broader interest in political activism.
“Baby boomers are a generation of amateur enthusiasts for political causes,” said Neil Howe, a historian and demographer and the president of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting firm in Great Falls, Va.
This enthusiasm started early. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, publishes a longitudinal survey of college freshman that began in 1966. Data collected from 1969 to 1980 (from respondents who are now 54 to 65 years old) found that an unusually large number of people entering college in those years cited a high interest in influencing the political system.
Now many of them are taking advantage of having more time to scratch that longstanding itch. “People bridging from full-time work to retirement are looking for different things,” said Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “In its purest form, politics is for the greater good in society. It’s a change in preferences to pursue meaningful goals and activities and care about the larger group.”
Dick Barrett, 73, an economics professor at the University of Montana, retired in 2007 and was involved in the faculty union there. Mr. Barrett, who lives in Missoula, now spends 90 days every other year in Helena, the state capital, as a legislator.
He’s not in it for the money: He draws a base salary of about $82 a day while the legislature is in session and a per diem allowance of about $112 for food and lodging, which he uses to rent an apartment near the capitol.
While he expects to run again, he has no ambition for higher office. “Few people go into it with longer aspirations,” he said.
Some, like John Stromberg, 76, who was a management consultant for more than 20 years, learn the ropes as an unpaid staff member. He was appointed to a volunteer position on the planning commission in Ashland, Ore., before running for office there himself in 2006. Mr. Stromberg is now in his second term as mayor.
His current priorities include disaster preparedness and managing the yearly influx of 300,000 visitors to the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
He plans to run for a third term in November. “I don’t want to drop out and become a retired person,” he said. It helps to have other sources of income, though: As mayor, he earns a mere $500 a year, plus health insurance.
Together with the City Council he appoints a paid professional city administrator who coordinates city departments. That position pays well over $100,000.
Jim Marpe, 69, used a 32-year career at Accenture and its predecessor company, Andersen Consulting, as a springboard to the position of first selectman (the town equivalent of mayor) of Westport, Conn. He gained experience and perspective serving in unpaid positions, including on the Y.M.C.A. board and as a member of the board of education for Westport, an affluent town of 26,000. His current job, which he started in 2013, pays just over $100,000 annually.
“Government is different from business, but you can apply business principles to government,” he said.
Diane Jablonski, 69, has had a mixed experience running for office. After retiring from a business career, she ran for comptroller for Dutchess County, N.Y., in 2005. She initially considered her campaign as a transition to retirement. “You think, ‘What am I going to do?’” she said.
But when she ran for re-election four years later, she lost.
Undeterred, she sought the higher office of Dutchess County executive but received only 35 percent of the vote. “There are so many factors in winning an election,” she said.
Unsure whether she will run again, she currently volunteers at the Dutchess County Mediation Center and is active in the American Association of University Women.
While the typical “encore career” lasts about a decade, according to Marc Freedman, the chief executive of Encore.org, some second careers in politics are more enduring. Betty Taylor, a city councilor in Eugene, Ore., has represented a ward of 19,000 people in the southern part of the city since her retirement from Oregon State University in 1996. Ms. Taylor turned 90 in September.
Her schedule generally includes meetings three Monday evenings a month and three Wednesdays at noon, as well as preparation and speaking with her constituents about their concerns, including real estate development, a pet issue.
While she is currently paid $1,300 a month, when she first began serving she received no compensation. Her current term is up in January 2017 but she expects to stand for re-election in May.
“I think I’m the best person for the job,” she said. “More experience in life qualifies you for making wise decisions.”
As for Mr. Ponto, the mayor of Brookfield, he said he couldn’t imagine holding his current position when he was younger and had family responsibilities. “Politics was too risky,” he said.
By Amy Zipkin