Magazine: How long have you been interested in politics, and what provided you with the impetus to get involved?
Caroline: Growing up in D.C. means that you either end up loving politics or hating it. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by inside-the-beltway talk and did not realize that not everyone heard about congressional bills on the radio on the way to school. Also, my family encouraged me to get involved in politics as a result of the political suppression that forced them out of Vietnam and Europe. Their experiences have made me especially aware that the American political system confers the privilege of free thought and voting on its citizens.
Nicholas: When I was a little kid growing up in New York City, I remember visiting my grandmother in a dilapidated apartment in the projects and thinking that someone who’s worked for forty years as a public school teacher should not have to live like this. These experiences made me realize that the government should provide better pay for public school teachers, who spend their lives educating others. It also made me think that the government should provide better housing for everyone.
Mag: When did you first start actively participating in politics?
Caroline: Although I had always been interested in politics, I did not do any specific work for political organizations until the spring of my senior year in high school, when I interned for Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and the Judiciary Committee. That experience made me realize how much I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes work of politics. During college, I was lucky enough to get internships with top political non-profits (NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Alliance for Justice), which taught me about the process of how to get people’s voices heard on particular issues and how important electing candidates who share your values is.
Nicholas: When I moved to Texas and joined a newspaper in a heavily conservative high school, I gained a new sense of how politics worked in the real world. While there, I was disturbed by a poll of students during the 2000 election. I was not upset because the results were overwhelmingly in favor of Bush, but because the vast majority of respondents said that they would vote Republican because their parents voted Republican, rather than because they had any particular policy convictions. I first participated in politics formally the summer after my sophomore year when I worked for the New York State Assembly and received a Sagner Fellowship from the Century Foundation to attend a three week conference to discuss how to get young people involved in the political process.
Caroline: When deciding what to do last summer, we realized that this is election is so important that we could not sit on the sidelines. Since D.C., Texas and Connecticut are not swing states, we mutually decided to go do grassroots organizing somewhere else. We ended up in Michigan because one of my previous bosses told me that the Director of the Michigan Democratic Coordinated Campaign really knew what he was doing.
Mag: What exactly were you doing this summer?
Nicholas: Actually, our internship shows how quickly you can move up in politics if you are willing to work hard and you know what you are doing. Caroline and I started out as office interns in the Lansing office in of the Michigan Democratic Coordinated Campaign and by the end of our second day, we were put in charge of all volunteer activities in Ingham County. By the end of our first month, we were the lead field organizers of the Eighth Congressional District, in charge of all political activity in that area. We organized two door-to-door walks a week to identify swing voters and to register new voters. We also planned an anti-Cheney protest of 150 people and organized a pro-Kerry event with Senators Levin and Stabenow for two hundred people. Finally, we got to be part of Kerry’s Advance Team and work on his fund-raisers on our days off.
Mag: Were there other students volunteering as well, or did you find yourselves on the younger end of the spectrum?
Caroline: The great thing about campaigns is that they are full of young people. The oldest person on the campaign was Jim Sype, the Director of the Michigan Democratic Coordinated Campaign, and he was only thirty-five. There were a lot of other young people on the campaign, either as part-time volunteers going door to door or as full-time volunteers like us. However, all of the other young people were from Michigan or went to school in Michigan.
Mag: What does this say about the youth culture’s involvement in politics during this election? Do you think that there is more or less interest this year than in the past?
Caroline: I think that there is generally a different attitude toward politics for people who grow up in swing states, as opposed to people who grow up in areas that are not contested. In a winner-takes-all system, uncontested areas do not generate much interest from residents. However, this election is so close, especially in the key swing states, that there really is an upsurge in interest that sends people to other states. For example, my roommate, Sarah Moros, is spending her semester working for the League of Conservation Voters in Oregon, and I know that 2004ward sent a lot of students to various swing states, including Florida.
Nicholas: I also think that the nation at large, and young people especially, view this election as incredibly important. This sense of urgency has motivated people on both sides of the issue to get involved. People are not just getting involved with the two parties but are also finding a resonance with various issue groups. Something that is really new this year is that, rather than having to work directly for a party, people can work on an issue that really matters to them. For example, we saw high school students working for PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) and ACT (Americans Coming Together) registering thousands of voters during our summer in Michigan.
Mag: Do you really believe that volunteering makes a difference?
Nicholas: Especially in such a close election, even a few volunteers can have a big effect. In the last election, a lot of the states were decided by less than a 1% margin, which shows us that a few volunteers each convincing a few voters can determine an election.
Caroline: Two of my personal experiences volunteering on campaigns have demonstrated the importance of political activism on the ground. The summer after my freshman year, I spent the week before the Pennsylvania primary volunteering for now-Governor Ed Rendell in the Philadelphia area with NARAL Pro-Choice America. On primary day, I went door to door with 11 other volunteers in one precinct in the suburbs of Philadelphia. At the end of the day, we had tripled voter turn-out in that precinct, and when the results came in, leading analysts said that Ed Rendell won the primary because of volunteer efforts in the Philadelphia suburbs. The other example is Nick’s and my summer in Michigan. We were two volunteers who recruited a hundred volunteers to knock on 6,000 doors in three months.
Nicholas: Another way to get involved during the school year is to travel to a swing state the weekend before the election, or even the day of the election, to work on get out the vote efforts. Caroline and I will be going to Pennsylvania, and there are also nearby opportunities in New Hampshire and Iowa.
Mag: What was the craziest/strangest/funniest moment you had this summer?
Nicholas: During Kerry’s Believe in America Tour stop in Grand Rapids Michigan, we had been out in the sun working behind the scenes since 7 a.m. We didn’t really notice the steady temperature climb, but by the time the crowd arrived at noon, it had hit 95¡. With the sun beating down and 15,000 people crowded into a small park with no water in sight, people began to feel the effects of the heat. By the time Kerry took the stage at 1 p.m., we had to help paramedics care for two old women who had fainted from heat exhaustion.
The funniest moment this summer took place after a John Kerry fund raiser in Detroit. Kerry was personally thanking Caroline and me for all the hard work we did for the event and posing with us for pictures when he decided to try to ‘be down with the young kids’. I tried to shake his hand at the end of the encounter, and he subtly waived me off and put his fist out for a fist pound instead.
Mag: Any other political insights you want to share?
Caroline: Volunteering is a fantastic opportunity to learn things that you cannot get in a classroom. All of the theories that they teach you will not help you to persuade people to agree with you, and they definitely will not help you convince someone to go out and make a difference by contacting other voters. Plus, if you are a political junkie or just like meeting people who may be the next President of the United States, volunteering for a political campaign is a great opportunity. During our summer, we met Kerry twice and we have the pictures and autographs to prove it!