Packing a Political Punch

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Yes, the Students for a New American Politics Political Action Committee is one of those PACs you keep hearing about. Yes, they’ve raised over $200,000 and sponsored 30 candidates since being founded at Yale in 2004. But the way they use their money is less like the vilified Super PACs spawned from Citizen United and more like opportunity creation for young political activists.

“No one else is doing this — we’re operating in a unique way, getting people with incredible organizing talents to work on progressive campaigns, and creating a pool for further campaigns that’s a lot larger,” said Matt Breuer ’14, the executive director of SNAPPAC.

What the organization does is simple, explained finance director and former Ward 1 Democratic Town Committee Co-Chair Amalia Skilton ’13: it endorses progressive candidates across the nation, and then invites applications from college students hoping to be placed with one of their campaigns. The students accepted as SNAP Fellows receive a stipend up to $5,000, free housing and transportation, and 12 weeks to help a progressive candidate make it through the polls successfully.

“Our mission is two-fold,” said Skilton, who worked on an Iowa senate race as a SNAP fellow in 2010. “We want to elect better people to Congress right now, and we want a good long-term progressive movement.”

The amount of money SNAP fellows receive is based on their demonstrated financial need, Breuer said. SNAPPAC provides actual campaigns with actual people, he added, donating the maximum PAC contribution of $5,000 per election race by hiring a student field organizer who can work for a progressive candidate without worrying about the pressures of needing to earn money for college. Having such help is worth far more than $5,000 to the campaigns in the sorts of close races SNAPPAC focuses on, Skilton added.

Skilton said that SNAP has received 600 applications for this election cycle. That’s up from 60 in 2010.

“We’ve hired 11 so far,” she added. “We currently have enough funding to hire 14 more, and our goal is to hire 40 people in total.”

Are Yalies interested? Where do they sign up?

According to the numbers, maybe not so much.

A News survey conducted earlier this week revealed that only 9 percent of Yale undergraduates currently plan to work on political campaigns, presidential or local, later this year. Even Elizabeth Henry ’14 — an outspoken member of the Yale College Republicans and the Tory Party — said she finds the prospect of sitting at a campaign field office and making phone calls to voters “boring.” It seems that, amidst the mess of internship applications, Summer Session emails and travel plans, we’ve left political work on the back-burner.

Mac Herring ’12, the campaign manager behind the ‘Sarah Eidelson ’12 for Ward 1’ effort last semester, said that she believes Yalies are politically engaged at an intellectual level, but are less interested in getting down to tangible political action.

After working on the Obama campaign in 2008, Evan Walker-Wells ’13 arrived at Yale for pre-frosh visits in early 2009. What he found, he said, was a campus where “everyone made it seem like Yale really cared about politics; it was in the lifeblood of the campus.”

That impression didn’t last long, he said.

“Yale students are very busy and this stuff seems like an extracurricular,” Walker-Wells said, adding that misconceptions about what political involvement actually is and how “big and important” a role students can have results in a very small group of Yalies that are actively politically involved.

“Field organizing is something that gives everyone a tremendous amount of responsibility — I spent three to five hours a day writing emails, three to five hours making phone calls and another three to five hours talking to people,” he added. “But there’s a sense at Yale that this isn’t tremendously important.”

While prioritizing other student activities may be one reason political campaigns are neglected, some suggest a lack of passion on campus is also to blame. One senior interviewed, who preferred to remain unnamed, said that she feels many Yalies consider themselves politically involved even if “all they do is reading the fucking New York Times.”

“A lot of people at Yale are ostensibly liberal, but they don’t know what they believe — it’s the same with people who consider themselves conservatives and don’t know what they believe,” Henry said.

Yale College Democrats president Zak Newman ’13, after carefully stating that he believes the last fall’s press frenzy about Obama having lost the youth vote “has been proven false,” said that campaigns are very excited to have students work with them. What Yalies’ political engagement depends on now, he added, is what they feel passionate about and choose to pursue.

He cites examples, ticking them off on his fingers: this kid’s really into youth issues, that one’s starting a HuffPo blog about foreign policy. Students are pursuing what Newman calls their “pet issues.”

But they’re not going to be able to do so using a fellowship from SNAPPAC.

Breuer said Yalies have access to enough resources from their school, in terms of financial aid and fellowship support that they do not generally need outside help if they truly feel that they want to work on a campaign.

“It is ludicrous for SNAP to hire someone like me,” Skilton said. “Nothing is preventing Yalies from doing this — they have no loans and few work hours; they can go door to door. It is silly to argue that it’s hard for Yalies to be involved in politics.”

But, to mangle a phrase from the Occupy Morgan Stanley protests last fall, what do our peers do with that privilege?

The big, the structured and the official

For most students, the most visible and organized platforms to effect any kind of political change are probably the partisan political groups: the Yale College Democrats and the Yale College Republicans. How much these two organizations take it upon themselves to push their party’s candidates both at the Connecticut and national levels could well be a key determinant of Yale’s experience of the 2012 races.

‘“The Dems absolutely is a platform for people to start getting involved at the national level,” Newman said, though he added that he thinks his organization can have more of an impact at the state level. Lincoln Mitchell ’15, the Dems’ membership coordinator, said that he is planning a large recruitment push during Bulldog Days and the first few weeks of the next academic year, to get the Class of 2016 excited about the polls in November.

“It’s hard for the Dems to mobilize people at the local level because their by-laws don’t allow them to endorse in a primary […] and this is a one-party town,” Herring said. “It’s easier on the national level, where there’s only one Democrat for them to support.”

Once the organization is aware of who the clear Democratic candidate for the Senate may be, however, Newman said he anticipates that they will “pick up the pace” in terms of publicity and outreach to Yale students. From that local point of view, one benefit of last year’s aldermanic race, during which Newman managed the campaign of Vinay Nayak ’14, is that large numbers of Yalies switched their voter registration to Connecticut.

In addition, Newman foresees the Dems taking a strong interest in the race for Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts, with Yale volunteers apparently eager to boost support for Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren.

The other side’s plan of action is less clear.

“What do you do as a conservative at Yale?” Henry asks, hair blonde in the sunlight shining through the Starbucks window and Southern twang out in full force.

She points out that the kind of voter registration drives the Democrats run are not helpful for the Republicans, as they are likely to, whether on campus or out in the city, simply be signing up more individuals who will vote Democratic. Those who can be convinced to join the conservative side, Henry said, make their way into the fold on their own volition: “A vote for anyone but Romney is a vote for Obama, and I’d say at this point virtually all the conservatives at Yale are for Romney.”

“The people who come to our meetings are the ones who think very seriously about Republican campaigns and perhaps the conservative movement, and they tend to support more establishment, safe campaigns,” said Michael Knowles ‘12, the chairman of the Yale College Republicans.

Knowles said that he has been approached by Republican candidates running different races across the state, and that he wants to get his group, “the loudest oppressed minority on campus,” involved in helping candidates in contests such as the ongoing US Senate race in Connecticut, in which Linda McMahon and Chris Shays are currently competing for the Republican endorsement.

“A big initiative of the Yale Republicans has been to publish, to come out of the closet,” he added. “That’s the only way we’re going to dispel these unfair mischaracterizations [and] get from 92 percent [for Obama] to even 91 percent.”

Newman said he thinks there is no opportunity for the Republicans to work effectively on the state level in Connecticut. Calling McMahon “unelectable,” he added that he sees value in an organized GOP presence on campus to further a conversation in the run-up to November.

Ben Stango ’11, a former president of the Dems, said that he considered the 2008 elections “unique” and would not expect to see comparable levels of excitement and large-scale organizing this year.

“Campaigning comes down to the fact that Yale students are often really engaged in a variety of things that relate directly to them […] and if the political groups are able to connect abstract national issues with the lives of students,” Stango added.

More and more, it seems, the focus of these large platforms winnows down to individual interests and passions.

“When I try to think about what the Dems can be doing, I’m mostly thinking about what’s good for people in the organization and what’s good for them in the future,” Newman said. “If someone’s really interested in an issue, we should help — if it’s some issue or thing [they] really know about and care about, it’s more interesting and they have more of an impact.”

Politics, the specialist way

Yale students may not be queuing around the block to sign up for positions on campaigns, but they are, it seems, going into 2012 with clear priorities about what they care about. If Yalies aren’t working to elect public officials, they certainly wish to inject their values into national policy debate.

One clear example of this were the 30+ comments in the News survey that mentioned women’s reproductive rights as the respondent’s top political priority, and the recent flurry of Republican comments and legislation concerning similar legislation. Other individuals interviewed are determined to make their issues matter on the national stage this election year, even if they are not currently hot-button issues.

“My time on campus has introduced me to others who pursue their causes with a similar level of passion to my own — these elections mean a lot of different things to people, and I am constantly impressed with the level of commitment to issues that I see in other students here,” said Diana Enriquez ’13, who is involved with the campus Chicano advocacy group MEChA de Yale. “The stakes are high for many of us.”

Enriquez believes that the recently proposed DREAM Act, and state legislation such as Arizona’s SB 1070 helped reignite interest in the immigration debate. She added that she hopes to get her fellow students more interested in issues such as racial profiling, and the image of immigration even beyond the Latino community.

“I collect stories. I share stories about my family, the communities we’ve worked with in New Haven and people I worked with at home. We talk about students like us who face uncertain futures because their immigration status puts them or their families at risk of deportation,” Enriquez said. “The human interest story is always a powerful one, and my role as a student activist is to remind other students how real these issues are for the people around them.”

Getting discussions going, she added, is a vital first step. Recent issues surrounding the implementation of the Secure Communities program, which has been attacked for the precarious position in which it places illegal immigrants, will help stimulate continued interest, Enriquez said.

For another breed of advocate, hitching their key issue to a larger concern across the nation could be effective. Harrison Monsky ’13, co-president of the Yale chapter of Global Zero, an organization that seeks to cut nuclear weapons spending and proliferation, said that he wants to include the nuclear question in candidates’ arguments about maintaining strong defense systems while reducing government spending.

“We are going to ask why are we holding on to a bloated nuclear arsenal two decades after the end of the Cold War?” Monsky said. “Strategists at the Air War College have said we only need 311 nuclear weapons to fulfill our current security needs. Why are we planning to increase our nuclear weapons budget by more than $185 billion over the next decade as funding everywhere else — from financial aid to healthcare to police forces — continues to get cut?”

This election year is especially critical for Global Zero, he added, because leadership and major decisions on arms control have historically stemmed from the highest level.

“We’re going to make a strong case that this is an issue the next President should stake his legacy on,” Monsky said.

Bringing attention to these issues can be challenging. Newman said he prioritizes education policy, particularly the reauthorization and “complete reworking” of the No Child Left Behind act. Since he believes, as do much of the media, that the economy is going to be the dominant topic of conversation during this election cycle, he said he feels a responsibility to make education part of the conversation as well, whether through political advocacy work over the summer or helping with attempts at policy reform.

Making education more of a focus for the Dems has been an effective way to mobilize more students behind his cause, Newman said.

It takes strategizing to garner that kind of support for more niche issues. Monsky said that, being aware that “nuclear weapons issues haven’t always been a top priority for college students,” Yale’s Global Zero chapter has focused on training activists capable of bringing the facts about unnecessary nuclear weapons expenditure to people’s attention.

“At Yale, and at our 100 college chapters around the country, we’re going to be applying all kinds of grassroots strategies to bring the issue to the forefront,” he added.

The dedication each of these Elis shows to their cause represents not just their own interests but the way they function in the community they’re part of. Walker-Wells, said that he believes it can be problematic for Yalies to become excessively focussed on one aspect of their lives or one issue, a trait he sees as rooted in high-school experiences that prioritized for future Yalies the importance of “seeming unique and different from everyone else.”

The beaten path

Even as individuals fragment and select their own issues to focus on, the traditional grassroots methods are, for some Yalies, still the favored path.

Knowles, who worked with Congresswoman Nan Hayworth (R-NY), co-led the student effort to recruit Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels as a Republican presidential candidate, and volunteered for the Jon Huntsman campaign for the Republican nomination, said that he feels young people have an opportunity to have their voices heard when working on campaigns, particularly with for Republicans, who attract fewer youth volunteers.

Still, proponents of heavy-duty political involvement face backlash. “When I talk to people about moving to, say, Iowa, for the campaigns, they go ‘why the fuck would you ever go there?’” Walker-Wells said. “That’s very far from the track people have been working on and talking about.”

He added that, based on his experience on the Obama campaign and conversations he has had with other students, even the group that ardently supported the Democratic candidate in 2008 “ended up being a small community.”

To Walker-Wells, who took two months off from his senior year of high school to work on the Obama field operation in Pennsylvania, being willing to take time off to completely dedicate oneself to a candidate is just as “legitimate” as the idea of being ‘on-track’ that he said his classmates enshrine. Even the fieldwork the Dems do, he added, is “pretty small” compared to the extent some students are willing to go for campaigns.

Perhaps no one knows that better than the SNAPPAC organizers, who have spent much of the last school year receiving applications and extensively interviewing the candidates for the fellowships they award. Skilton said that the PAC is now making a specific effort to only recruit students from state universities, and to include students who can help change the demographics of campaign staff, the leadership of which she described as “still pretty white.”

“The big thing for me is seeing what people are doing on their own campuses and what they can do with the opportunities we give them,” she said of the selection process.

Skilton added that she was particularly excited about being able to offer a fellowship to a minority student from the University of California at Los Angeles, who is pursuing a major in political science and is currently on the honor roll. The student activist also works two jobs so that he can send his family $3,000 a year and travels regularly to Sacramento to work on student and immigration reform within the state. That is the sort of candidate SNAP seeks to provide with the opportunity to work on progressive political campaigns, she said.

“This person shouldn’t be getting $2,000 from me — he should be getting a Rhodes scholarship,” she said.

Who is the political Yalie?

The political Yale student is not the fiery student organizer staying up all night to place door-hangers on every door on Old Campus. What delving into the realm of the politicized instead reveals is a campus on which the majority of students who want to have an impact are doing that with specific issue advocacy more often than actively supporting a political candidate..

On that kind of landscape, those seeking to garner support for national political structures must be aware of who they’re working with. Stango said that, when he sought to register Yalies and win their support for Democratic candidates, he and his team specifically identified ways to show the Democratic ticket supportive of the issues different individuals and groups considered pertinent to their mission statements.

“There are a lot of people at Yale who would be more interested in political campaigns if someone would just talk to them about it,” said Herring, referring to her experience spreading the Eidelson message last semester.

But why these students aren’t already thinking about the importance of activism and building grassroots support remains unclear. One reason Walker-Wells specified is an assumption that the majority of students at Yale interact with peers who share their political beliefs.

“A good example is the ongoing conversation about the Republican presidential nomination,” he added. “I think one reason I haven’t had that conversation with my friends yet is because I think they agree with me.”

The idea of Yale as a liberal bastion, in the midst of the bluest of blue states, may, then, be behind a sense of complacency that leaves Yalies feeling little sense of urgency to work with campaigns or to push for change at the party level.

But Stango thinks there’s still untapped potential on campus.

“It’s absolutely possible for students to have an impact – New Haven’s a small city and Connecticut’s a small state,” said Stango, a grizzled veteran of the Democratic scene in the state. “If you care and are willing to work extremely hard, you can have a major impact. It just can’t be about casually signing up to volunteer a couple times and putting New Haven campaign work on your resume.”

Maybe there’s something to be said for being a cog in the political action machine.

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