ELECTION 2008: When Your Actions Speak Louder than a Vote

Alex Baden

How Politically Active Students Are Working Towards Change

For most students in the WJ community, political activism probably starts and ends with watching Sarah Palin parody clips on YouTube or putting an “I support­­­…” icon on their Facebook profile. But for a passionate minority, political activism is as much of part of their lives as any other extracurricular activity.

Ben Ritz, a junior who worked for the Barack Obama campaign, is one such exceptional individual. Beginning in July of last year, the former Hillary Clinton supporter worked as an intern for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.  He became an Obama supporter after realizing that his ideas on major issues more closely mirrored the Illinois senator than those of former First Lady Clinton.

“That, combined with my disgust with the Clinton campaign tactics, made me support him,” recalled Ritz, who started out working with only a handful of other young supporters, eventually moving into the campaign’s new Falls Church office.  Ritz contributed to the campaign any way he could, often spending up to four hours a day campaigning in Virginia, several times a week. He phonebanked, or called people, trying to convince them to support Obama or volunteer their time to his campaign. He also canvassed, trying to rally people’s support door to door, and ran voter registration efforts outside metro stops in Virginia until the registration deadline on Oct. 6.

“The goal [was] for Barack Obama to be the first democrat in 44 years to win Virginia, and therefore win the election,” said Ritz.

Ritz was not the only student hoping to change the outcome in 2008. Senior Daniel Cinquegrani has been actively participating in various political campaigns since July 2006, working on Governor Erhlich’s reelection campaign and joining the Maryland Teenage Republican Party (TARS). He became a McCain supporter in January 2007.

As the chairman of  TARS, Cinquegrani worked with groups and high school clubs trying to rally aid for McCain, in addition to canvassing and attending rallies.

“I spent many hours every Saturday morning on the campaign, and some time almost every day working on some aspect of organization,” said Cinquegrani. “In total, it probably [came] to about 20 hours a week.”

In Montgomery County, which is overwhelmingly liberal, it is no surprise that the majority of politically active students at WJ seemed to support Obama. According to a poll conducted by The Pitch that was given to 207 students in 10 third period classes from Oct.31 to Nov.6, 88 percent of students voted or would have voted for Barack Obama.

“Students are enamored by Obama [because] he represents vision, perspective, and hope for our future,” said social studies teacher Micah Wiggins.

Cinquegrani was once in the minority even in his support of McCain, who struggled to keep his campaign afloat in the primaries. As one of the few supporters to show up at the national headquarters in Arlington, Va. in Aug. 2007, Cinquegrani was able to have a 10-minute conversation with the Arizona senator.

“I have my t-shirt to thank for my face time with the GOP presidential nominee,” said Cinquegrani, whose shirt bore McCain’s image.

For many students, participating in campaigns and fundraisers was as close to the electoral process as they could get.

“As minors, we [did not] have an influence on who we would vote for,” said junior Ronique Taffe, who participated in a fundraiser for Obama and aided elderly voters at the polls on Nov. 4. “So for the people who represented us, we [tried] to get them actively involved.”

Senior Jon Silberman, who worked in Obama’s Bethesda office, decided to volunteer his services last August, although the campaigning experience was not always pleasant.

“[I was] cursed at while trying to enlist volunteers,” said Silberman. “I was told I could ‘go to Hell, along with Obama.’”

Silberman put himself in the line of abuse, but according to some students, the level of active student involvement is debatable.

“While probably 90 percent of students care about [the] issues, 10 percent or less actually try to further their causes,” said Ritz.

Some students are involved in causes that will continue beyond this campaign cycle. Senior Gabe Schwartzman canvassed for Obama on Nov. 2 in Virginia, and continues to be involved in a myriad of activism groups. He is part of the conservation committee of the Sierra Student Coalition, a co-director of a local chapter of Montgomery County Student Environmental Activists (MCSEA) and a leader in the local branch of PowerVote, an activism group that aimed to get one million young people to sign pledges saying they wanted a clean energy future out of the 2008 election. For Montgomery County alone, Schwartzman hoped to get 4,000 young people to sign pledges for better energy use under the next administration.

“There are tons of people at WJ who are signing the pledges and care about a clean and just energy future,” said Schwartzman. “An issue like climate change really brings young people together, even after years of being disempowered by adults telling us we can’t make a difference, telling us to wait to care.”

Regardless of the outcome of the 2008 elections, many students will continue to stay involved in political and social causes in the future.

“I have joined what is becoming a social movement, and that is the most empowering feeling I think anyone can feel,” said Schwartzman.