College campuses rediscover politics

Student leaders spread bug to young voters

February 28, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Matt Chiller had sent out the word to the University of Maryland, College Park to attend a meeting to help the presidential campaign of Al Gore. About 35,000 students are on this campus.

Twenty are at the meeting.

Chiller, a senior from Massachusetts who has been bitten hard by the political bug, is pleased.

"These are the people you want," he says. "You get one or two people active out of this, they'll get you a ton of people."

With eight days to go before Maryland's primary March 7, interest in the presidential nominating races has hardly risen to a fever pitch among the state's college students. Politics has become one of those campus activities -- like the chess club, debate club and rowing crew -- that attracts a small coterie of intense devotees.

That would be people like Chiller, who spent his first two years at UMCP in the school's Scholars program that groups students in a small-college-like atmosphere around a theme. His theme was public leadership.

"It piqued my interest," he said. "I got a small internship on Capitol Hill and it kept going from there. I've interned at the White House. This is definitely what I'm into.

"But of all the things I've done, campaign work is the most rewarding," he says. "It's hands-on, the real process."

Chiller spent three weeks between semesters in New Hampshire before that state's primary. Now he spends a few hours most days at Gore's Montgomery County office.

At the College Park meeting, scant mention is made of Gore's policies or positions. Chiller tells the students that becoming involved in the campaign could be a good career move.

"It's better than any internship," he says, emphasizing the jobs, the people, the access from becoming active in a campaign.

"That doesn't surprise me," says Thomas Schaller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who is also active in the Gore campaign.

"I'm not that much older than some of these students," Schaller, 33, says. "I know their history. They are fundamentally different from their parents' generation" that drove the campus-based political upheavals in the 1960s.

"They are very work- and career-oriented, as well they should be," he says. "The pressure is there to use college as a road to employment. Getting involved in politics can be a distraction."

Christine Davies, a junior at UMCP from Ellicott City, is organizing campuses statewide for George W. Bush's campaign for the Republican nomination.

"Students have a lot of other things on their mind," she says. "They have to decide if they should go to this political rally or study for their German test. We try to make the events fun so there will be a social side to it. It's a good rule that if there is free food, college students will show up."

Eric Uslander, a political science professor at UMCP, says the decline in campus political activism is not limited to Maryland.

"Overall, nationally, student interest in politics has gone down tremendously," he says. "It is a long-term trend. Young people don't connect with the government. They don't see government as affecting their own lives.

"This is particularly true in a period when the economy is doing so well. The students don't look to government to solve big problems because they don't have that many big problems," he says. "The idea that someone is trying to change the world would scare people now. There's a sense of complacency. People don't want to see their world shaken up."

That jibes with the perception of Herb Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College.

"There's a blip in Republican interest this year," he says. "I've seen some McCain buttons. But it's nothing like '92. That was a big year. There was the aftermath of the Gulf War, there was a recession, so there was more of a focus on politics.

"We had banners hanging out of windows, signs in dorm rooms, an appreciable amount of activity. A number of students were working for [Paul E.] Tsongas up here. It's a lot lower this year."

But Kevin Hula, a political science professor at Loyola College, thinks interest might be increasing.

"My sense is that involvement among students is on the upswing," he says. "I think they were sleeping through the 1990s. They might not know what their party affiliation is, but compared to five years ago, I see more students interested in internships, writing letters, going to rallies.

"It may turn out that this whole impeachment affair, sordid as it was, stimulated some people to think that politics really matters," Hula says.

For those who do catch the political disease -- like Mark Hershfield, a senior at St. Mary's College -- it can be an intense experience. He runs weekly issue discussion groups for the college Democrats and has worked in St. Mary's County elections.

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