Young Democrats Play Major Role in Chicago Convention
Average Delegate Age Is Youngest Ever; Leaders of College Democrats of America Given High-Profile Speaking Roles
CHICAGO--MTV's "Choose or Lose" bus sat beside the main entrance to the United Center, its reporters on the floor of the Democratic National Convention seeking commentary from anybody under the age of 25.
They didn't have to look far.
Young Democrats were in the spotlight all week, during a convention whose delegates' average age was the youngest in its history.
Marilyn Concepcion, a Brown University sophomore, was one of three college students who delivered five-minute speeches before the crowd.
"I saw so many young people, and it really looks like President Clinton cares about what we think. I definitely think that he's listening to what we have to say," said Concepcion, a former Americorps member.
The Democratis Party, hoping to be called the party of young people, gave college Democrats prime-time attention, and politicians mainly expressed support for their proposals.
David E. Wade, president of the College Democrats of America, took the podium and implored students to vote--and to remember that Republicans wanted to cut $6 billion in student loans.
"Although I may be young, this isn't kid stuff," Wade said, emphasizing with his very appearance that young people are gaining political influence.
"We have 100,000 students active on a thousand campuses. A lot of that sort of coincided with the Republicans taking over Congress and their attempts to cut student aid." Wade said in a telephone interview this week.
"It was a huge wake up call," said the Brown University senior, who is taking time off this semester to work full time with the College Democrats.
The College Democrats' membership has jumped 40 percent since 1994.
Some have pegged today's generation of college students as "apathetic" because 1960s-style protests have disappeared.
But 13-year-old Stephanie M. Dodge said politicians just don't take students seriously.
"Some of the delegates and representatives are like, 'They're just kids,'" said Dodge, a reporter for Children's Express, a non-profit organization in which teenagers write news.
Wade said he thinks student activists are very interested in government, citing President Clinton's Americorps program as proof.
"Our generation isn't as interested in political protest as much as community service closer to home," Wade said.
Laurence J. Rescetar, student political director for the College Democrats, said "students are starting to work inside the parties instead of outside the parties."
She contrasted the 1996 Democratic National Convention--which featured a number of students with starring roles inside the convention hall--with 1968's violent clashes between students and police on the streets of Chicago.
There were, however, some protests this year. Jovenes Rebeldes, a band of high-school age Latinos, gathered outside the United Center, clad in skimasks and bandanas, demanding freedom for political prisoners and an end to the embargo of Cuba.
They stressed they want to be heard.
"We're just tired of the anti-Latino issues brought up, especially in an election year," said a man who identified himself as Quixote.
Another said, "We want our voices to be heard."
When students work within established channels, Wade said, they're a power to be reckoned with.
"College students, quite frankly, were the difference in electing Bill Clinton and Al Gore '69," Wade said.
He said 82 percent of registered college students voted in 1992, the highest percentage of any age bracket.
"I think young people will be an integral part of this election," said Patrick J. Ellis, director of legislation for the College Democrats. "I think every election year young people gain a better footing in the process."
"We can no longer be ignored as a political force and groups like College Democrats will highlight that and further empower young people."
Mark Nevins, communications director for the College Democrats, said that as college-age voters show their strength in elections, politicians are more and more willing to address their issues.
The White House staff, which is full of youthful staffers, symbolizes Clinton's commitment to energizing America's young voters, he said.
"Not only are young people being considered as a legitimate interest group but I think that some parties--I won't name names--are taking them seriously," Nevins said.