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Local Politics Leave Students Cold

As City Council race heats up, undergrads tune out

By Michael M. Grynbaum and William L. Jusino, Crimson Staff Writers

It’s not unusual for Harvard’s politically inclined students to spend a weekend rallying in Virginia or canvassing New Hampshire to help bolster campaigns. But Harvard’s political fruit tends to fall far from the tree. When it comes to helping out back at home, many students favor physics over civics.

That changed in 2003, when a 26-year-old MIT graduate shocked Cambridge’s political establishment by nearly nabbing a seat on the City Council—almost entirely on the basis of student votes. Matt DeBergalis, a software engineer, canvassed dorms and dining halls at Harvard and MIT, spearheading a voter-registration drive and capturing the attention of a notoriously aloof constituency. When the dust settled, DeBergalis had come within 137 votes of election, finishing just behind the nine incumbent councillors. Students had played a larger role in the race than anyone would have expected.

Two years ago, DeBergalis told The Crimson he expected to see a 2005 council race in which “everyone will pay attention to [students].” He now sounds a less enthusiastic note.

“My hope was that the focus on student involvement would have continued, and that didn’t happen,” DeBergalis says. “I suspect few or any of the candidates are putting that kind of time into campus voters.”

As all the incumbents and nine other challengers vie for seats on the council this fall, DeBergalis has stayed out of the race, choosing instead to focus on political fundraising. Without a candidate stoking students’ interests, Cambridge’s campus set has reverted to its perennial apathy.

The lack of student involvement hurts both students and politicians, DeBergalis says.

“The candidates would all benefit from encouraging them to vote and drawing out those issues,” he says. “Students themselves would benefit if student groups and leaders on campus spent some time working on that.”

But a survey of student political groups suggests that the barrier of student apathy has yet to be breached this year. While some undergraduates make an effort to involve themselves in Cambridge affairs, the majority of students—even those who consider themselves politically active—have little interest in the political terrain of their home away from home.

WHAT, ME WORRY?

Andre Green is this year’s only Republican candidate for City Council, and, in the Kremlin on the Charles, his political road could be treacherous. Yet he says he’s received little assistance from on-campus Republican groups, despite several overtures for support.

“I have approached individual Harvard students, and they’ve been quite helpful,” Green says. “Official groups, not so much, not yet.”

Matthew P. Downer ’07, president of the Harvard Republican Club (HRC), says members of his organization recently participated in a Green campaign event held in Harvard Square. But Downer says the students were acting as individuals, not on behalf of the HRC.

A member of the Leverett House senior common room, David R. Slavitt, ran for state representative as a Republican last year. He says he tried to gain campaign support from campus Republican organizations. The College Republicans he spoke with, he says, were receptive but flaky.

“Whenever there was anything to do, they had an exam or they had a vacation or something else to do,” Slavitt says. “I don’t think I ever got one person willing to either solicit signatures or go door to door with flyers or nothing.”

Similar complaints surface on the other side of the political aisle. The Harvard College Democrats have gone through thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours arranging out-of-state campaign trips for members. The club has sent student volunteers out to work on contested races in South Carolina, New Hampshire, and, most recently, Virginia, where about 20 students spent Columbus Day weekend canvassing for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine.

But the club tends not to involve itself in local political affairs.

“There’s less of a sense that we’ll be affected by it, so it’s hard to motivate around that,” says Gregory M. Schmidt ’06, president of the Harvard College Democrats. “It hasn’t been our main focus because most Harvard students are more focused on national issues, mostly because most people aren’t from the Cambridge area.”

Schmidt says that Cambridge’s political system is technically nonpartisan, because few of the council candidates run as representatives of a party. And most issues of concern have local relevance—like zoning or Cambridge safety—rather than broad ideological implications.

“We all want Felipe’s to be open to 4 a.m. but it’s not very clearly a Republican or Democratic issue,” Schmidt says. “I would love to have the Harvard Republican Club to come out against Felipe’s being open but I doubt that they would.”

Megan A. Crowley ’05, campaign manager for council candidate Craig Kelley, spoke with the Dems about volunteer opportunities at the beginning of the semester.

“As a Harvard student I didn’t know that much about what was going on in Cambridge politics, and kind of always wished that I knew more,” says Crowley, a government concentrator who began work on Kelley’s campaign immediately after graduating in June. Crowley says that “a few” Harvard students have helped out with Kelley’s efforts, but she acknowledged it’s an uphill battle to involve students in local affairs.

“It’s a population in flux a great deal, so there’s a lot of movement in and out, and often it’s hard to know how to reach out to that population,” Crowley says of Cantabrigian collegians. “I know a lot of students at Harvard feel more tied to Harvard than to Cambridge.”

Even the Institute of Politics (IOP), which serves as a nonpartisan liaison between Harvard students and political figures of all stripes, rarely sets foot in the politics of its own city. The IOP has hosted “Hardball” tapings and policy forums broadcast on C-SPAN. But the president of the IOP’s Student Advisory Committee says the organization is not planning any events that include this year’s Cambridge City Council candidates.

“I would say that we try to respond to student interest, so on topics on which there’s less student interest, we tend to have less programming,” says IOP President David M. Kaden ’06. “Students seem to be more interested in elections in their home states.”

‘ONGOING PROJECTS’

Harvard’s hands-off approach to local politics may lie more in its students’ priorities than in the nature of the town-gown divide. Even at Yale, a university bounded by urban disaster on all sides, students traditionally leave some imprint on city government.

Because one of New Haven’s electoral districts is composed almost entirely of Yale dormitories, an undergraduate regularly serves on the city’s Board of Aldermen.

Harvard cannot claim such influence on the Cambridge City Council, but the Undergraduate Council (UC) does appoint a liaison to work with local officials.

Jeffrey Kwong ’09, who assumed the position two weeks ago, says he has experience working with city government in his hometown of San Francisco. Kwong says he plans to work with the Council to extend Felipe’s late-night hours, perhaps as late as 4 a.m.

In March 2004, then-liaison Eric P. Lesser ’07 began work with current UC President Matthew J. Glazer ’06 and then-UC President Matthew W. Mahan ’05 to install blue-light emergency phones in Cambridge Common. Three phones were eventually installed in the park.

“Students have much more of a stake on who’s on the City Council than they think they do,” Lesser says. “There’s a lot of things that the City of Cambridge has control over that can change or impact campus life. The blue-light phones are a great example.”

Lesser adds that the city government has a “big say in regulations and requirements for things like concerts, for big-scale things like Harvard-Yale. You need a city that’s willing to cooperate, or at least a city government and student government that are on the same page, so that things can move more smoothly.”

For the moment, Kwong says the UC is working on several city-related issues, but declined to provide details.

“There are some unconfirmed projects we’re working on,” Kwong says.

FINDING A BALANCE

To many observers, Harvard and Cambridge simply occupy separate spheres.

“Harvard is interested in New York, Washington, and the world, so Massachusetts politics is mildly interesting to them as a laboratory,” Slavitt says. “But, in a way, not. [Harvard is] in Cambridge but they don’t feel at all bound to it.”

Lesser says that all students could benefit from staying involved in their surrogate city’s government.

“I don’t necessarily think that anyone is as involved as they should be, myself included. Harvard is in Cambridge, but in many ways it’s removed from Cambridge,” Lesser says.

Some say this places the onus of action on the candidates themselves. Longtime Cambridge pundit Glenn S. Koocher ’71 says students have little reason to become locally involved without prodding from candidates.

“Something really has to arouse the interest of students and the student community to get them mobilized,” Koocher says. “There really has to be something burning.” He adds that candidates have to “bring the issues home to Harvard and MIT.”

Such an effort shaped DeBergalis’s campaign two years ago—and probably accounted for his unforeseen success. In targeting the student constituency, DeBergalis reawakened a dormant voter bloc that had been ignored altogether in previous elections.

Some of this year’s candidates have tried to learn from DeBergalis’ example.

“We’ve done various forms of broadcasting and requests from people to get involved in local campaigns and participate,” says council hopeful Sam Seidel, referring to student groups.

But Seidel’s campaign cannot match DeBergalis’s on-campus efforts, which included dining hall canvassing and a door-to-door trek through Mather High-Rise. And Seidel’s campaign manager says that, for his candidate’s purposes, there are other, juicier fish in the sea.

“It’s definitely a part of our strategy, but there are a lot of people in Cambridge,” says Patrick Kratovil. “We’re just trying to reach as many people as we can.”

—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at grynbaum@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer William L. Jusino can be reached at jusino@fas.harvard.edu.

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