Partying On

They've lost the White House and Congress, but College Democrats find a conventional way to stay upbeat.

July 23, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The College Democrats are lost.

We mean literally. The agenda for their annual convention calls for a rally outside the Cannon House Office Building, across the street from the U.S. Capitol. A dozen of them are there at the appointed hour, in their T-shirts and flip-flops, ready to raise hell. But where is everyone else?

"It's not here," one of them says of the planned rally. "It's at the Capitol."

"Where?"

"We should ask a security officer."

Turns out the rally was moved indoors because, among other reasons, it was too hot out. The College Democrats: Taking back America, one air-conditioned meeting room at a time. And so the group finds its way across the street to an entrance to the Capitol, where they descend into its subterranean depths for a rally about ... Social Security.

Party on, kids!

Eight hundred idealistic young Democrats are in Washington this weekend for their annual convention, the first since Sen. John Kerry lost the presidential race last fall, a heartbreaker that some still haven't gotten over. A few are wearing Kerry-Edwards T-shirts. And they are all given free with registration a hardcover copy of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, the Douglas Brinkley book that seems to be in abundant supply.

"It's a little late now," says Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, a 21-year-old senior at Cornell University. (The students also get blue wristbands, for the color the Democratic Party has adopted as its own, crowding the yellow and pink bracelets already on their wrists for various causes.)

Republicans have controlled the federal government for these students' entire college careers, yet they are a relentlessly optimistic bunch. They knocked on doors for Howard Dean and manned phone banks for Kerry. And they refuse to be demoralized, or, in some cases, even admit they lost.

"The true victor is one who puts it all on the line, win or lose," Scott Zumwalt, president of the D.C. Federation of College Democrats, told the delegates in the Washington Court Hotel ballroom yesterday. (Some might say the true victor is also the one who wins the election, but nevermind that technicality.)

"We lost," says Jessica Clark, a senior at the University of Central Florida, "but we didn't lose by that much."

"One hundred fifty thousand votes in Ohio, and Kerry would have won," says Adam Goldberg, a senior at the University of Maryland. "I don't think we as a Democratic Party are necessarily doing anything wrong."

But the party is trying to organize the younger voters it had once taken for granted, or simply ignored. The Republicans have nurtured their young, providing funding to bring conservative speakers to campuses and to start conservative student newspapers.

Democrats say they are catching up. The new American Democracy Institute is trying to organize young leaders. It distributed a postcard at the convention with an arty photo of a young woman and the text, "If a bunch of us really started talking about democracy, it could make a huge difference."

The party also brought in two young Democratic hotties - Chris Heinz, son of Teresa Heinz Kerry, and Cate Edwards, daughter of vice presidential nominee John Edwards - to fire up students at the trendy DC bar MCCXXIII Thursday night. Only convention delegates were allowed in, and those old enough to drink were given coupons for one free Miller Lite each.

Not nearly enough to forget who runs this town.

"Sometimes, it's easier to be passionate when the Republicans are in control of everything because you don't like the way things are going," says Stephanie Hausner, president of the Johns Hopkins University College Democrats.

Hausner, who worked on Kerry's campaign last year, and others are convinced a savior will emerge to lead the party from the wilderness. For many, that savior is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who addressed the convention yesterday amid enough flash bulbs to give one a seizure.

"Do not grow faint-hearted or discouraged because we're not in power right now," Clinton told the delegates. "There's something going on under the surface in American politics. People are asking hard questions again. They're saying, `Is this the way we really want to be?' "

She also managed to claim President Abraham Lincoln as a Democrat - saying he had "attitudes and values very much in line with what the Democratic Party believes" - as she ran down a litany of the party's accomplishments over the years.

There seemed to be little doubt among the students here that Clinton would run for president in 2008. Large, blue "Hillary" signs greeted the students on the stairs down to the ballroom, and there were two full tables of Clinton merchandise, including T-shirts that featured her face in black outline, recalling Warhol's famous images of Marilyn Monroe.

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