Eli lobbyists push for local change

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Last fall many Yalies fought to elect to the White House a former community organizer whose motto, “Yes We Can,” galvanized thousands of Yale students to take an active role in their futures. This spring, many student groups say they are taking that message to heart by pushing for legislative change on the state and local level.The Yale College Democrats and other groups, including Shelter Now and the Yale Homelessness and Hunger Action Program, have been working together to lobby for change in two key areas: homelessness and universal health care. Through sit-down meetings, letter-writing campaigns, event organizing and a rally at the state’s capital, the group’s leadership said they believe they have an impact on state and local politics. While General Assembly staffers acknowledge the actions of these groups, they say Yale students do not have a disproportionate impact on state legislation.

As State Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney put it: “Yale students are vocal, but no more so than anybody else.”

For the past four years, the Dems have used lobbying as a way to keep students involved in the organization when there are no major elections to get students excited about.

“We’ve been saying very consistently for the last couple of weeks,” Sarah Turbow ’10 said, “it’s not the off-season, it’s the on-season.”

Still, the recent presidential election permanently altered the standard for student activism. Last year, Benjamin Stango ’11, lobbying coordinator for the Dems, estimated that the average attendance for the Dems’ lobbying meetings was between 10 and 20 people. But following Obama’s election, the Dems’ leadership said it estimates the group has a core of about 30 active lobbying members, with several more students peripherally involved.

“Students become involved with lobbying in order to see the change they voted for in this election,” Stango said. “That’s really where a lot of this fire for lobbying is coming from.”

Working alongside various student groups like Shelter Now, YHHAP and the Roosevelt institute, the Dems this semester have chosen to lobby for Connecticut to enact universal state health care and to increase funds for supportive housing by $60 million. Supportive housing, Stango explained, provides homeless individuals with a temporary apartment in which they can live while making the transition to becoming fully housed.

“The homeless are some of the neediest in our community, but also some of the most deserving of our help,” Simon Goldstein, a coordinator of YHHAP, said. “I think we have an obligation to help support those who, at least now, cannot support themselves.”

While student leaders said groups such as YHHAP and Shelter Now may focus more on regional issues and service projects geared toward helping the homeless, the Dems say they are making a concerted effort to implement policy change. Stango said he has contacts with prominent local and state politicians — including Looney and New Haven state Sen. Toni Harp — and meets with them at least twice a year.

But Looney said that while he has been in contact with Stango and other involved Yale students, Elis represent only a portion of his constituency.

“I have a big and diverse district,” he said. “I represent a large section of New Haven — including much of Yale — and two-thirds of Hamden.”

The weekend, before Gov. M. Jodi Rell released her budget, which was to feature several large-scale cuts, the Dems and Shelter Now worked together to send out over 400 handwritten letters and to make several dozen phone calls to the governor’s office protesting the cuts. Shelter Now coordinator David Lee ’10 said even though the budget cuts were drastic, they were much smaller than anyone expected. To him, this proves the efficacy of student lobbying, he said.

But Rich Harris, a spokesman for Rell, emphasized that no single group has a large effect on the budget proposal’s form.

“Our constituent services office has gotten some phone calls from Yale students,” he said. “But other than that, there hasn’t been a whole lot of contact.”

Lee said he became involved with pushing for housing reform because he realized homelessness is an issue that affects everyone. He added that though he at first wondered how effective student groups could be at making change via lobbying, his work with Shelter Now has changed his perspective.

“The amount of time you have, the amount of experience you have, the amount of whatever — it shouldn’t be a limiting factor,” Lee said. “We as student groups can be taken very seriously.”

On Monday, a group of Yale students — including Stango — affiliated with the Dems will testify before a joint public hearing of the Public Health, Human Services & Insurance and Real Estate Committees of the General Assembly on behalf of a universal health care bill for Connecticut.

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