What Do Dems Do: Quibble About Candidates, Rankle Conservatives and Change the World
Upon hearing the name "Harvard-Radcliffe College Democrats," most students probably think they have a good idea of the club's purpose and what it stands for.
Stereotypically--albeit accurately--pegged as the nesting ground for campaign-crazed future politicians and fanatical progressive types, the club also offers a surprisingly wide array of alternative opportunities for political involvement.
And rather than pushing one solid party line, the club embraces opinions from along the entire continuum of Democratic Party thought.
From participating in the presidential election to coordinating efforts with other campus groups, from internships with senators to local voter registration drives, the club is well-stocked with engaging activities for those new to the political scene as well as those wishing to flex their already well-developed political muscles.
It's in the Roots
The executive board, which provides the club's only formal structure, meets every week and serves more as a steering committee, aiming to focus its resources on involvement instead of red tape.
The club holds no formal meetings, except for introductory membership meetings, and is connected mainly through the activities it sponsors and participates in.
"The structure of the organization remains fairly consistent," says Marc Stad '01, the club's current president. "While our programming varies from year to year, our ultimate aim is to get as many students involved, educated and excited about Democratic politics."
And this year, the numbers show they've been successful. Probably due in large part to the impending election, the club has drawn an unusually large number of new members, with first-year students more involved.
Of the 11 members of the current executive board, seven are first-years.
"We're definitely very bottom-heavy," Stad says.
This imbalance is a good sign though, he says. "Oftentimes, [first-years] are the students with the most energy, the most willing to put in time, the most excited about planning events, and the most eager to slowly move up the ranks to higher leadership roles," he says.
Getting the Word Out
"The College Democrats is a resource for Harvard that anyone can utilize," he says.
Through activities like bringing democratic leaders like Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis to campus and passing out "educational" flyers on Texas Governor George W. Bush door-to-door in the Yard, the club is attempting to reach out to the students on campus, organizers say.
"We look at ourselves as an umbrella organization for the progressive voice on campus," Stad said. "You could say we are a hodge-podge type of club, providing for all different groups."
A major component of achieving this goal is to coordinate efforts with other campus groups whose members may espouse the progressive cause.
The club has a campus outreach coordinator, who attends the meetings of other major progressive clubs, such as the Black Students Association and the Environmental Action Committee, informing their members of Democratic events and activities.
As the only progressive political club on campus, the College Democrats says it aims to appeal to a range of students by welcoming differences of opinion within the Democratic Party.
"We don't come down on one side of an issue if it's divided within the Democratic Party," said Jessica Richman '01, the club's vice president.
"We let our members know what's going on," Stad says. "But that doesn't mean we have to all go out and hold signs."
The club also attempts to reach beyond Harvard's campus, networking with other colleges in the Boston area to share notices about upcoming Democratic events and coordinating campaign efforts.
"We can only do so much," Stad says. "We're just a smaller piece in the puzzle, so we have to work together."
On the Campaign Trail
The group made several trips to New Hampshire last semester in order to attend debates and rallies and to canvass the neighborhoods of the state.
Club members made a special trip to New Hampshire over intercession to participate in Get out the Vote Week, a six-day period in which students and volunteers from all over the country flooded the state before the decisive election day.
With plans for voter registration drives for local residents, as well as for students to vote by absentee ballot, the club will continue to work for the 2000 general campaign effort.
Campaigns director John F. Bingaman '02, says these segments of the campaign effort serve to involve students in more than just one election.
"I want to inspire young people at Harvard," he says. "I want to inspire a commitment to public service by exposing them to how democracy works."
The club is also dedicated to helping its members decide where their affinities lie.
Members are working to coordinate a forum with Vice President Al Gore '69's education advisor and former senator Bill Bradley's senior health policy advisor, which the club will host in early February.
While the club gives no formal endorsement to any presidential candidate, its members say they plan to fully support the victor in his run for the office.
And despite what seems to be a lag in student political participation across the country, the club has had little difficulty in getting students to join in.
Luke P. McLoughlin '00, who heads Students for Bradley, an offshoot organization of the larger club, says student participation has been outstanding this year.
"We tabled in September and just had a ton of people sign up," he says. "We've had more than a hundred students go up to New Hampshire."
Stad, too, lauded students' efforts.
"It's great when 25 or 30 students are willing to go in the rain and snow [canvassing] or spend a Saturday making phone calls," he says.
McLoughlin sees the 2000 presidential campaign as a motivating force for students who might be interested in politics but not very active.
Though he is a member of the Harvard Democrats, McLoughlin says this level of activity is new to him.
"I've never been motivated to work for a candidate before Bradley," he says.
Beyond Campus Politics
The College Democrats offer regular opportunities for community service in support of Democratic causes.
"Given that community service is an essential part of being an effective and committed Democrat, the College Democrats have traditionally incorporated community service projects into our agenda," says Richman.
While most of this year's community service activities will focus on the presidential campaign, the club has had a long history of active community involvement, participating in Habitat for Humanity projects, paying visits to senior citizens living in a nearby nursing home, holding winter clothing drives, and volunteering for overnight shifts at the University Lutheran Church Homeless Shelter.
In addition, the club offers real-world political experience through summer internships and jobs ranging from working in senators' offices to interning for the Democratic National Committee to working with Common Cause, a nonpartisan citizens' organization which investigates government corruption. This year, opportunities will also be available with presidential campaigns.
Members of the club see these internships not only as valuable experiences but also as a springboard into the world of politics.
"An internship is most helpful in making connections with people in government and politics who can be a
future source of information about job openings," said Elizabeth Howe '00, the club's former internships director.
For many members emeriti, the club has served as a launching pad to a career in politics and related fields.
Alums include U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer '71, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne '73, and Democratic pollster and consultant Doug Schoen '74.
But for every member who has gone on to shine in high-profile politics, there are many who have put their experiences to use in other walks of life.
"These experiences are excellent preparation not only for leadership in any field, but more importantly, for a life of active and involved citizenship," said Joe N. Sanberg '00, last year's club president.
"It's not necessarily a career path," Stad said. "For some, it is a passion or interest. For others, it is much more of a hobby."
Todd E. Plants '01, for one, an active member of the Undergraduate Council and council presidential candidate in the last election, has still managed to participate regularly in the College Democrats.
Plants, who comes from a family of Democrats, knew he wanted to get involved in political service of some kind when he came to Harvard. The club offered him an opportunity to participate without curbing his other interests.
The informal nature of the group is unlike most college groups that "expect you to be really hard-core about their club," Plants says.
Another highly appealing feature for Plants was the opportunity to interact with students sharing similar political views.
"The club is a chance for unabashed liberals who enjoy politics to get together," he said.
Campaigns director John Bingaman agrees, saying that getting together with other Democrats is one of the chief benefits the club offers.
"We're a very diverse group, we have a lot of fun together," says Bingaman. "We share a commitment to helping others and fighting for the future of this country. I've made some of my best friends here at Harvard through the group."