A passion for getting out the vote

Out of jail and into politics, activist makes it his mission to get young people to the polls

April 21, 2006|By NICOLE FULLER | NICOLE FULLER,SUN REPORTER

Hassan Allen-Giordano isn't one of those political types in a three-piece suit, with a fancy degree, plotting strategies on a BlackBerry.

He's the guy who is up at 6 a.m., in a white polo scarfing down waffles, convincing students that politics might save their lives - as it did for him.

A while back, the 30-year-old political activist wasn't worrying himself about how many young people he could get to the polls on Election Day.

In 2001, he had served two stints in jail for dealing drugs. He had been kicked out of high school. And the Park Heights native couldn't vote.

"When I came home from jail ... the only things I could tell you about politics is that one of the parties was a donkey and the other was an elephant," he says. "I couldn't even tell you what the mayor was. And I could never imagine in my wildest dreams working in politics. But now I can't imagine not. Go figure."

It wasn't easy, but he has become prominent on the city's grass-roots political scene. He was a vocal supporter of a bill to create a task force to study youth homicides in the city, but it stalled in the legislature. He frequents city community meetings - including a forum on alleged police misconduct and an information session held by City Council President Sheila Dixon. And he has testified before the House and Senate in Annapolis, helping to get legislation passed that eased voting restrictions on convicted felons, which he calls, "so dear to my heart."

That is why he was at the student center at Coppin State University on Tuesday, way before most college students like to get up (from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.), getting them registered to vote.

His mission is to increase voter turnout among young people, especially African-Americans.

"It's a passion," he says. "I love politics. You've got to understand me. The only thing I watch is CNN and the West Wing. And I love young people."

It's a tough job, considering that many young people are apathetic. Only 52 percent of eligible voters between 18 and 29 cast ballots in the 2004 general election, according to a 2005 study by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy.

Even the cool factor associated with MTV's "Rock the Vote" and P. Diddy's flashy "Vote or Die" campaign was not enough to get a significant number of people in their 20s to the polls in the last presidential election - not to mention the millions of dollars spent.

But Allen-Giordano and the members of the Youth Empowerment Movement, a coalition of about a dozen politically progressive youth organizations in the city, don't want to hear that.

He's no stranger to struggle.

Allen-Giordano got started in politics fresh out of jail. In 1994, he served an 18-month term for selling drugs. Out of jail, he went back at it. He was given six years in the state penitentiary.

Israel Cason gave him a chance, he says, hiring him in 2001 to work public relations at I Can't We Can, the drug recovery program he runs.

"I got familiar with Israel. He took me on," Allen-Giordano says. "He gave me the opportunity. Everybody that works for his organization is recovering. They're from the streets. You don't need a resume to work there. He gave me an opportunity, and I ran with it."

Soon he was working on Dixon's re-election campaign, serving as a field director with responsibility for making sure campaign literature got out and signs were hung, he says. Right after Dixon's campaign, he was hired as legislative director for Del. Salima S. Marriott.

"I got kicked out of all the Baltimore city schools," he says. "I'm basically self-taught. I just got involved in the process and did all I could."

An only child, Allen-Giordano, who is single and has no children, grew up with his mother, Theresa Giordano, an accountant. Dad wasn't around. He calls himself an "independent Democrat" but stresses that his voter registration drives are nonpartisan.

He makes money consulting, he says. He earned his General Education Development diploma at age 16, after bouncing around several city high schools.

The voter registration effort, dubbed Vote Young, is a plan to help educate youths about voting laws and absentee ballots. It also provides transportation to the polls and pushes to get voting precincts at colleges.

In 2002, he worked with the NAACP and the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition to pass House Bill 535, which allowed some convicted felons, including himself, to regain their voting rights.

He quickly announces whom he cast his first vote for, saying, "You know I voted for Sheila [Dixon]."

The state prohibits voting by felons twice convicted of violent crimes. But people convicted of one "infamous crime" - a category that includes fraud and corruption - can register to vote after completing their sentences. Those convicted of two or more nonviolent crimes can register three years after completing their sentences.

He seeks blanket amnesty but for now is just trying to fill the voting rolls.

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