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Acting Political, if Not Always Local

Student Republicans and Democrats stay engaged, buck stereotypes

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In the video above, College Republican Matt Stern (CAS’11) (left) and College Democrat Matt Wall (CAS’10) discuss the role of government, bipartisanship, and who fits the title of Republican or Democrat. 

Two competing arguments categorize student involvement in politics nowadays: either they’re not interested (Exhibit A: no sit-ins, let alone mass antiwar demonstrations), or they’re the youthful energy driving a campaign (Exhibit B: the grassroots surge that helped elect Barack Obama).

But maybe that analysis is oversimplified. Political activism may not be as visible today because student interests are more diverse, personal, and digitized.

“My sneaking suspicion is that the older generation got involved in politics because they didn’t have reality TV,” says James Boggie (CAS’12), Student Union director of city affairs. “That was their entertainment.”

Joking aside, politics does have a presence on the BU campus. The College Republicans and the College Democrats have active membership, and another 21 clubs of all political stripes, from the Anti-War Coalition to Right to Life, are listed among student organizations. Members man phone banks, campaign door-to-door, and host on-campus activities.

“Students today all have pet issues,” says Esha Rakhit (CAS’10), president of the College Democrats. “It’s hard to get a large group to do anything.”

Participation in political activities depends on the audience. “I deal with politically involved people every day,” says College Republicans president Katie Flannery (SMG’10). “If I talk to someone outside that group, they could care less.”

Nicole Troelstrup (CAS’13) is aware of that. The political science major has been surprised at the rough slog recruiting members to the new BU branch of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG), which tackles issues like health care, global warming, and affordable higher education.

“I don’t think students are active enough politically in the United States,” says Troelstrup, a MASSPIRG intern. “They don’t understand the political system and don’t know what’s going on.”

If it’s hard finding a single topic that unites all students, equating the absence of huge rallies with political apathy is wrong, students say. Certain issues attract attention: public transportation, the dissolution of 18-plus dance clubs, city legislation that places a limit on the number of unrelated roommates allowed per apartment.

Boggie says students are concerned, but don’t take the next step of registering and voting in local elections. He thinks they see themselves as temporary residents, and they prefer to focus on federal debates.

“This definitely dampens political activity,” he says.

If BU students are more involved in their pre-University hometowns, most would have little reason to invest time in the nitty gritty of Bay State politics. Massachusetts residents accounted for only 20 percent of the freshman class in fall 2008, according to the University’s Information Center. Another 16 percent came from New York, and close to 20 percent from California and New Jersey combined.

A Maine native, Flannery doesn’t buy the idea that nonresidents have no place locally. “It’s important to get involved regardless of what state you’re from,” she says. Flannery’s club has tried to help student voters register, but found it difficult; each home state requires different forms.

College Republicans volunteered in newly elected Republican U.S. Senator Scott Brown’s Needham office by staffing phone banks and campaigning door-to-door. They also attended his victory party at the Park Plaza Hotel after his January win.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” says Flannery, who was 16 when she first volunteered for a Republican campaign in Maine.

College Democrats worked for Attorney General Martha Coakley (LAW’79) in her run against Brown, says Rakhit. Contrary to much of the commentary after the race, she thought Coakley was a strong candidate and ran a good, although unsuccessful, campaign.

“The Democratic party is still strong,” Rakhit says. “They still have a huge majority in the State House.”

Flannery is energized by Brown’s victory in the nation’s bluest state. “I think Massachusetts could really use it,” she says. “It’ll bring more balance.”

With fall elections on the horizon, Flannery says club members are getting involved early in Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker’s campaign, as well as strategizing about how to help fill Brown’s vacant state senate seat.

“I think people think there are no young Republicans,” Flannery says. “We’re trying to prove them wrong.”

College Democrats plan to aid Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in his reelection campaign, Rakhit says, and support the Democratic candidate for Brown’s former seat. Her club made calls for John Corzine in his run for governor in Rakhit’s home state of New Jersey and intends to do the same for the Democratic contender in Connecticut this fall.

Both clubs host on-campus events, sometimes in a bipartisan spirit Congress would do well to emulate, combining for charity bowling events or debates. They also reach out to fellow organizations at Suffolk University, Boston College, and Tufts.

“Everyone has the country’s best interests at heart,” Flannery says of Washington politicians. “People need to work together in a better way.”

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu. Nicolae Ciorogan can be reached at ciorogan@bu.edu.

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