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Sitting Out on the Main Event

Campus Political Groups

By Lan N. Nguyen

IN BARS AND COFFEE SHOPS throughout the state this fall, amateur politicos are having a field day choosing sides in one of the most bizarre gubernatorial races to hit Massachusetts in anyone's memory.

But on college campuses in the Boston area, the battle between John R. Silber and William F. Weld is proving a little to hot to handle.

Faced with the option of throwing their support to one of two candidates who at times seem almost interchangeable, many student political organizations have simply decided to sit out the governor's race this year, focusing their efforts on other issues.

To these student leaders, it is the Senate campaign that is the hot race of this election year--despite the fact that Democratic incumbent John F. Kerry is leading his Republican challenger by a comfortable margin in most polls.

Kerry's strong support of higher education and the environment have made him a favorite among college Democrats. Conversely, student Democratic leaders say that many undergraduates have grave doubts about the character of Silber, the Boston University president who many say ruled the institution with an iron grip.

At Harvard, more students are working on Kerry's campaign than any other past senate race, says James M. Harmon, president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Democrats.

"Kerry is the hot race for students," says Neil A. Cooper, a Harvard senior and the former president of the College Democrats of Massachusetts. "Students see a need to support Kerry."

The other burning issue for student's the sweeping tax rollback sponsored by the Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT)--Question 3 on this year's ballot. Many state education leaders contend that the CLT petition would devastate academia in Massachusetts, and students across the state have taken an active interest in the petition's fate.

BUT OVERALL, STUDENTS have stayed out of the gubernatorial campaign--the most important of this year's contests in the minds of many state residents.

At Tufts this year, the focus of political groups has shifted away from specific races toward promoting campus involvement in the political process.

In past years, both the Democrat and Republican clubs at Tufts have attempted to get students volunteer in campaigns from their respective parties. But this year, both groups are working with other student organizations in a coalition to register student voters.

Rather than pushing for one candidate, the goal of the two clubs is to educate student voters, according to David W. McElroy, president of the Tufts College Republicans.

"We are kind of isolated here," says McElroy. "If we send four to five people to work on the campaigns, we don't get the same amount of support as we do if we focus on the campus."

The new focus has already produced results--more than 1000 newly registered Massachusetts voters, a success rate that student leaders are attributing in large part to concern over CLT. According to Jane Felton, president of the school's Democratic club, Tufts would be particularly hard-hit by the cuts in state scholarship funds that the referendum will cause.

The main reason that student leaders are wary of campaigning actively in the gubernatorial contest, they say, is that both Silber and Weld are so atypical their respective parties.

Silber, for example, is nominally a Democrat, but last year reportedly flirted with the notion of running for governor on the Republican ticket. And he has taken flak for his outspoken style of speaking, alienating many potential liberal supporters.

Weld, on the other hand, has portrayed himself as a moderate Republican, and has counted on his pro-choice stance to woo many Democrats.

Voters across the state are expected to cross party lines right and left in this election--which poses a problem for student political clubs.

By their very nature, college Democratic and Republican clubs have to back the partycandidates. But individual clubs have to gaugestudent interest when deciding whether to helpcampaigns actively.

At many campuses, Silber supporters are hard tocome by.

"We do endorse Silber," says Felton. "We don'thave a strong consensus among the group that heshould be governor to work for him."

"This race transcends party lines even thoughit is Democrat versus Republican," she says. "Wedon't believe Silber truly holds Democraticvalues."

"Members are not working for Silber," echoesHarmon, the Harvard Democrats' president. "Moststudents see the gubernatorial race as a choicebetween two evils."

Conversely, support for Silber is running highamong many student Republicans--but the officialorganizations, of course, are barred from takingpart in the Democratic campaign.

"We do have people who like Silber," saysSumner Anderson, president of theHarvard-Radcliffe Republicans. "They can work forhim individually. They would not being doing it asthe Republican club."

But Republicans are mostly viewing this race asa win-win situation, arguing that a victory foreither candidate would be a net gain forconservatives. Silber "is the best alternative ifwe can't win the election," Anderson says.

"Silber forced the traditional left to be in astate of flux," says Bill Spadea, nationalsecretary for the College Republican NationalCommittee. "That confusion sends moderates over toour side."

The biggest stumbling block for Silbersupporters on campus, student leaders say, is thatthe B.U. president is not "politically correct."

This image of Silber as a tyrannical monster isextremely difficult for many students to shake,Cooper said.

"In the beginning, we had to mobilize supportfor Silber," says Cooper. "The organizationsupported Silber but not a lot of people want towork for him. Students perceived that Silber issomeone inimical to student interests."

"I don't think the press has been fair to theman," says Colin Gallagher, founder of theindependent group Students for Silber andClapprood at Harvard. "There are a lot ofoutstanding points in his record that are glossedover."

On at least one college campus, however,Democratic club leaders are having no qualms abouttheir party's nominee. At B.U.--Silber's homebase, students say they have had no problemdrumming up support for the university'spresident.

Silber is the Democrats' only choice, saysThomas P. Ahern, president of the B.U. CollegeDemocrats, explaining "there is no perfectcandidate out there."

"Silber is qualified to revamp education,"Ahern says. "If in any event CLT passes, we wouldrather have Silber in there to fight the cuts."JAMES M. HARMON

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