Students interested in politics

Students sign forms during tabling by Chomp the Vote, a UF organization designed to encourage students to get involved in politics.

Special to The Sun
Published: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 11:25 p.m.

When Richard Yon asked the 50 students in his upper-division presidency class how many of them have been following the presidential debates and getting actively involved in the upcoming election, most of the hands in the class were raised.

Yon, a political science Ph.D. candidate and instructor at the University of Florida, said presidential candidates have not appealed to the youth in the past and that young people have not been voting.

But now, times are changing.

With the 2008 presidential election less than a year away and Florida's primary on Tuesday, the busy UF campus is more outspoken and involved than usual.

This increased activity is a joint effort of newly formed student organizations, which support the campaigns of specific presidential hopefuls. Other veteran political clubs and organizations on campus also extend their agendas to raise awareness and encourage students to vote nationally and locally.

"It's definitely a testament to the fact that they're actually really taking this seriously," Yon said.

Frank Bracco, 19, executive director of Chomp the Vote, said the purpose of his organization is "to get students involved not only here on campus but in the local community and involved in national politics as well."

Along with making appearances at clubs and organizations to encourage students to register and vote, Bracco said Chomp the Vote also hosts its own events.

On Jan. 16, the organization co-hosted a Gainesville City Commission candidates forum with the League of Women Voters. The forum, held at Emerson Alumni Hall, was an attempt to show students the importance of getting involved in local politics, Bracco said.

"We've got four individuals in the race that are under 28, so it really is a young demographic this time," he said.

Robert Agrusa, 22, former UF Student Senate president and current City Commission at-large candidate, said the upcoming City Commission and presidential elections offer the chance for the UF student population to show others they can make a difference.

Agrusa, who graduated from UF in December, said the nature of his campaign and that of the national races proves that people are ready for change and "are tired of the status quo."

"We need to build a coalition together to be successful," he said. "Our younger population needs to mobilize and come out."

From public relations to dealing with volunteers, Agrusa said a great number of students have been actively involved in advocating his campaign. The students are very "engaged and excited," he said.

"It's not just about the local election," Agrusa said. "Each vote counts and it matters."

Kathleen Shea, 21, a third-year classical studies major at UF, is the president and co-founder of Gators for Hillary. The organization was started after a representative from Hillary Clinton's campaign spoke at a College Democrats meeting on campus. Shea, along with another club member, took the initiative to try to unite supporters of the former first lady.

"We are both really big Hillary fans," Shea said.

Shea said that the club's mission is to raise awareness of Clinton's campaign on campus as well as to increase the number of student voters.

The club has a core group of about 15 people who consistently show up for meetings, a number Shea hopes will increase if Clinton gets the nomination at the Democratic National Convention Aug. 25-28 in Denver.

Although the presidential nominations won't be official until late summer (the Republican National Convention is Sept. 1-4 in Minneapolis), Shea said she believes it is important to take action now.

"Hopefully, next fall, when Hillary gets the nomination, we'll already have that groundwork in place, instead of starting from scratch," she said. "We just want for people to be interested, come out to the meetings and help."

Victor Bard, president and co-founder of UF's Gator Conservatives, shares Shea's view on the importance of student involvement.

Bard, 21, said Gator Conservatives is an independent group without exclusive ties to the Republican Party that freely critiques GOP actions. However, Bard says many of its members vote Republican in elections.

Bard, a telecommunication major, said members of Gator Conservatives have been "scoping out the election and watching closely and listening carefully to all the candidates."

"We've got members of Gator Conservatives that have already been phone-banking for Fred Thompson over the holiday break. We've had members who have been participating in the Rudy Giuliani campaign. We've had one member who already flew all the way to New Hampshire to help Ron Paul's campaign for the first primary," Bard said.

Yon, the political science instructor, said today's youth is now increasingly courted by campaign organizations as well as by candidates themselves.

"Your voice can't be heard unless you're involved," Yon said.

Bard said "the presidential candidates have really seen the value and the power and the momentum that college students can create - especially [with] MySpace and other networking Web sites - and how interconnected everybody is online."

Yon said that voting and getting involved is part of one's civic duty.

"It's a right, it's a privilege that we have, and it should be exercised," Yon said, "and if we learned anything from the election in 2000, it is that every vote matters, and it can come down to a very few votes to determine an election."

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