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Lessons in Politics

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

By mid-January, with a presidential election less than 12 months away and the New Hampshire primary only days away, some Smith College students were already participating in the region's lively political contest.

During the January break, leading up to the January 27 primary, a few dozen students, all members of the Smith College Democrats, worked as volunteer interns in the Granite State campaign offices of Democratic presidential candidates including Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton.

While they do not share political viewpoints, Smith Democrats President Lauren Wolfe '05 (left) and Smith Republican Club President Katie Horton '04 have a common interest in getting students involved in the political process. Photo by Gregory Cherin.

Among the students is Sarah Zeiser '06, a medieval studies major, who last fall organized students on campus to support General Wesley Clark under the Smith Democrats umbrella. As a former Dean supporter, she thinks that Clark, with his military background, has the best chance of beating Bush. "I would love to see a Clark-Dean or Dean-Clark ticket," she says. "Two halves of a wonderful whole."

Throughout the fall, as the merits and flaws of the candidates were debated in various forums -- including the Daily Jolt with postings like "Wesley Clark is hot in a dorky way, even if he is a war monger" and "Howard Dean rules" -- the Smith Democrats and supporters were busy. The club brought prominent speakers to campus, volunteered to canvas neighborhoods, local and otherwise, for their favorite candidates, organized a trip to Boston for the Rock the Vote debate and threw parties on campus to build "team spirit," according to Lauren Wolfe '05, president of the club.

The 850-member Smith Democrats group is strong this year, making a comeback as a Student Government Association-chartered organization after a few years of dormancy. "Our intent," says Wolfe, a government major, "is to raise awareness and have a good time and to make politics a central part of students' lives. You can participate in the political process in any way you choose."

Meanwhile, the Smith College Republican Club, with about 20 active members and a larger mailing list, is rebuilding its organization and gearing up to campaign this spring for incumbent President George W. Bush. The club has initiated some image-building efforts on campus, according to Katie Horton '04, club president.

"The campus is very polarized," notes Horton, a psychology major. "Some people feel the campus environment is overwhelmingly liberal and there's no room for a conservative political viewpoint."

Being a Republican does not go hand in hand with being a conservative extremist, she says. "We want the campus community to know that conservatives are not crazy, and we don't eat babies," she jokes.

More seriously, she adds, "It is possible to mix parties and ideals, to have socially liberal points of view but identify as a political conservative. There are more variations on themes of being Republican than people believe."

She welcomes civil discourse when every opinion is respected, no matter where it falls on the political spectrum.

Political allegiances aside, Smith Democrats President Wolfe and Smith Republicans President Horton have become friends through their activism, and they often share resources and pool efforts. A member of the Smith Democrats has offered assistance in the redesign of the Republicans' Web site, for instance, and together the two club presidents organized a voter registration drive on campus in November.

"There are a lot of common issues between us," notes Horton. "Getting people to register to vote is a big thing."

Overall, what is clear is that Smith students are getting involved and learning ways in which they can make a difference in the political landscape. As Sally Katzen '64, a Washington Scholar in Residence at Smith and veteran political appointee with the Clinton Administration, said during a Smith Democrats–sponsored lecture in November, "[Politics] is something worth being passionate about."

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