Tuesday, September 26, 2000

Campaigns try to get youth involved

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        There is no end to the things you could be doing with your spare time if you are a high school senior like Tess Kleinhaus.

        Your homework. Hanging with your friends. Watching TV. Surfing the Net.

        Or working to change the face of Congress.

        Ms. Kleinhaus, a 17-year-old from Clifton, spends several nights a week in a cluttered storefront office on Hamilton Avenue in College Hill, one of a growing cadre of high school and college students volunteering for the congressional campaign of Democrat John Cranley.

        She and her fellow students are doing voluntarily what an alarmingly small number of her peers are doing — getting involved in politics.

        For the St. Ursula Academy student, she made up her mind to get involved when she read a short piece about Mr. Cranley's campaign in a magazine and decided the 26-year-old first-time candidate was the kind of politician she wanted to see in Congress.

        “I've never done this before; and I wasn't sure about politics before this, but I have to admit it's pretty exciting,” Ms. Kleinhaus said. “I know now this is where I want to be.”

        What she is doing as a campaign volunteer is rare among those of high school or college age.

        Just under one of every five Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in congressional elections two years ago out of about 15 million in that age group, according to a poll conducted by NASS, the National Asso ciation of Secretaries of State.

        A nationwide survey of college students conducted by Harvard University's Institute of Politics this spring found only 7 percent volunteered or planned to volunteer to work in political campaigns.

        Among older Americans, voter turnout has gone up and down over the years, but, among 18 to 24-year-olds, the trend has been consistently down.

        Since 1972, the first presidential election after the voting age dropped from 21 to 18, voting by those 18-to-24-year-olds has steadily dropped — from a high of 50 percent in that first contest between Richard Nixon and George McGovern to 32 percent four years ago when Bill Clinton faced Bob Dole.

        This year, the presidential campaigns realize that young voters could make the difference in what is expected to be a very close presidential election.

        That is why two women in their 20s, Karenna Gore Schiff and Rebecca Lieberman, daughters of Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman, did a tour of college campuses in several key Midwestern states this week, holding issue-oriented round-table discussions with young people.

        It is also why George P. Bush, the 24-year-old nephew of GOP nominee George W. Bush, has been criss-crossing the country for his uncle with two missions in mind — to appeal to Hispanic voters (his mother is Mexican-American) and to drum up interest in the Bush-Cheney ticket among college-age voters.

        It also explains a raft of local, state and nationwide efforts aimed at getting high school and college age men and women to register to vote for this presidential election.

        The best known is MTV's Rock the Vote campaign, which includes a 25-city bus tour aimed at registering young people. Rap the Vote, an affiliated group, aims for urban youth, with appearances by rappers Mary J. Blige and LL Cool J.

        NASS, which represents state elections officers around the country, is working with public school systems to promote stateofthevote.org, a Web site aimed at high school and college students.

        It answers questions about the political process and steers young people toward registering to vote with hip, flashy graphics — its “frequently asked questions” section is labeled “DUH.”

        “How many web pages about voting look like a Mountain Dew ad?,” said NASS spokeswoman Kay Albowicz. “We think it will get young people's attention.”

        Programs like Rock the Vote may work better than anything else in attracting this generation into politics, said Joan McLean, a political science professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.

        “It creates a climate that says it's OK to think about politics,” Ms. McLean said. “The only climate they've ever been exposed to is one that says it is stupid, you're wasting your time.”

        But still, the task is difficult, Ms. McLean said.

        “With the freshmen I teach, the only president they've really known is Bill Clinton, and the only political climate they've known is one of cynicism about politics and politicians,” said Ms. McLean. “It's little wonder they are turned off.”

        Most young people, Ms. McLean said, are not the self-centered, materialistic people they are often portrayed to be.

        “It's been my experience that most of them really do care about what kind of world they are inheriting from their parents,” Ms. McLean said.

        The Harvard survey of college students would seem to bear her out. It found that while only 7 percent say they would volunteer for a political campaign, 60 percent said they regularly volunteer for some kind of community service.

        Ryan Day, a 21-year-old senior studying history and political science at Xavier University, is one of those young people who is trying to convince his peers that there is a connection between their daily lives and the political system.

        He heads the campus' small but growing Republican student organization. The Richland, Wash., native says it is frustrating sometimes trying to convince his fellow students that politics is relevant.

        “Most of us don't have children; most of us don't have to worry about things like Social Security or Medicare or prescription drugs, or it's so far in the future that young people can't see it,” said Mr. Day, who hopes for a career in politics.

        Young people — whether Republicans like Mr. Day or Democrats like Ms. Kleinhaus and others who volunteer in the Cranley campaign seem to understand that most of their peers don't make the connection between issues they care about and how they can make their voices heard through voting.

        Lucia Villalobos, an 18-year-old high school senior at McAuley High School, works with the elderly through an “adopt-a-grandparent” program through the National Honor Society. But she also makes time to work a few nights a week at the Cranley headquarters.

        “It's pretty obvious that if we elect the right kind of people, the elderly folks I work with are going to get the help they need,” Ms. Villalobos said. “That's why I do it.”

        It would not occur to many of her friends, Ms. Villalobos said, to volunteer for a political campaign — not because they don't care, but “because politics doesn't seem real to them.”

        There are some issues, she said, that high school and college students do respond to, including government funding for student loans and access to education.

        “When politicians talk about those things, I think young people listen,” Ms. Villalobos said. “They just don't talk about it enough.”

        Neil Shear, an 18-year-old high school senior from Finneytown who also volunteers in the Cranley campaign, went to Washington on a school field trip and caught the bug of politics.

        “The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was the right thing to do,” Mr. Shear said. “Yes, we're young, but it is our government, too.”


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