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New Life Of The Parties

September 19, 2001

Vounteers in their teens and 20s make presence felt in politics.
by Sheila Rayam
The Democrat & Chronicle

(ROCHESTER, NY) — Stephen Keblish remembers watching George Bush debate Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential campaign.

He was 6 years old at the time, mind you, but the now-sophomore at the State University College at Brockport understood one very important aspect of the presidential debate and politics back then.

“I knew there was a Democratic and Republican Party,” says Keblish, 19, of Herkimer, Herkimer County.

Keblish has been seriously studying up on the political process since the 10th grade. Last year, he started a Brockport for Bush organization. This year, he has organized a group called the Brockport College Republicans.

“The main reason that I like politics so much is it’s gonna be in the history books someday – what happens in Washington,” says Keblish, who’s also a member of the Herkimer County Republican Committee.

“There is a lot of drama in politics.”

Joe Christoff didn’t watch the Bush-Dukakis debates, but he remembers his parents talking about them. Now, he’s able to discuss politics with his parents if he chooses.

“Politics makes sense to me,” says Christoff, 17. “It’s something I’m interested in.”

The Penfield teen won’t be of legal age to vote until next month, when he plans to register without enrolling in a specific party. But that hasn’t stopped him from getting involved.

Christoff became a campaign volunteer for Monroe County Legislature candidate Mitchell Rowe earlier this summer. The senior at Penfield High School has put up Rowe yard signs and attended a campaign strategy meeting at county Democratic Committee headquarters, among other things.

Rowe is the Democratic candidate for the legislature in the 26th District, covering parts of Rochester’s Maplewood and Edgerton neighborhoods. He is among dozens of local candidates vying for office in the 2001 campaign.

More than 100 positions representing the city, towns and county will be decided by voters on Election Day, Nov. 6.

And working behind the scenes to get their candidates in office are volunteers who have been stuffing envelopes and making phone calls for months.

Those volunteers come from all walks of life and demographics, including the late-teen and 20-something groups that have been saddled with an apathetic label by society.

Jason Crane, 28, of Rochester has heard the they-don’t-care-about-politics talk in reference to his age group.

“I think it’s unfair to apply that apathetic label to 20-somethings,” says Crane, who’s a member of the Monroe County Green Party.

“Quite honestly, half the American public voted in the last election.”

In Crane’s eyes, if only half the American public didn’t vote, why single out the 20-something demographic as apathetic?

Crane has actively volunteered for the county Green Party for the past two years. Currently, he’s volunteer coordinator.

For a minimum of an hour a day, seven days a week, Crane does everything from answering e-mails about the party to creating and handing out literature about the five Green candidates in the 2001 campaign.

And he did all of that recently while working 70 hours a week as a union organizer before starting a new job as an operations producer for WXXI radio (FM 91.5 and AM 1370) on Sept. 10.

Crane isn’t the only young activist who’s volunteering for a local campaign on top of a busy work schedule.

Melisza Escher of Chili is campaign manager for Linda Terrell, the Democratic candidate for County Legislature in the 13th District.

As campaign manager, Escher’s duties include everything from writing press releases to stuffing envelopes, the activity most associated with campaign workers.

The 22-year-old spends about 12 hours a week of her free time volunteering for Terrell’s campaign. She does so after putting in a full day as a broadcast traffic coordinator at Jay Advertising in Pittsford.

If you had told Escher a few years ago that she would be running a local campaign, she probably would have laughed.

Although she enjoyed her political science classes at the State University College at Geneseo, Escher admits she wasn’t big on politics.

But that all changed after she attended the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles last year. Escher, who is of Hispanic heritage, was recruited by Monroe County Democrats who wanted to send a diverse contingent to the convention.

“I went to the convention and had the most amazing experience,” says Escher. “It just completely enlightened me on what you can do as an individual in politics if you put your mind to it.”

Now, Escher has political aspirations of her own and dreams of running for office one day. She hasn’t decided which office, however. For now, she’s content to learn the ropes of political processes on the local level.

Many young activists aspire to political office, say experts, and that’s one reason they volunteer to work for a local campaign.

For Escher, there’s another very important reason why she’s volunteering her time.

“It’s just so important for young people to be involved,” says Escher.

“Where is our future going if we don’t have young people involved?”

Escher acknowledges that there’s a segment of her age group that isn’t interested in politics. She says the majority of her friends, for instance, are not registered to vote.

“I would have been one of those people if I hadn’t been called to action to go to the national convention,” says Escher.

But Escher believes that a big part of the problem with getting young people involved in politics is that politicians aren’t reaching out to them.

Monroe County Green Party volunteer Norah McCormick has been registered to vote since she was 18 and she has exercised her right to do so often since then.

Still, she can understand how participating in the political process by volunteering or voting can be a low priority for 20-somethings.

“You have a lot of developmental life tasks to deal with in your 20s,” says McCormick, who turned 30 this month.

“Thinking about my 20s, it was hard enough to get it together to go and vote.”

McCormick, a special education teacher in the Rochester City School District, volunteered with the Green Party for the first time this summer. Much of her volunteer work included voter registration.

McCormick is running unopposed for a position on the Green Party’s state committee. If she becomes a member of the committee, she’ll have a hand in deciding which candidate the party will put on the ballot for governor of New York state, among other offices.

Like Escher at the Democratic Convention, McCormick may very well get a bird’s-eye view of the system.

Most citizens don’t have that opportunity, says Crane.

“You don’t generally have access to the political (process),” says Crane. “I think it is very difficult for people in this country to become informed with unbiased information.”

Still, the information is out there. And that’s what Mark Chadsey, assistant professor of political science at SUNY Brockport, tries to convey to his students.

“Many of them think that they can’t acquire information,” says Chadsey, who’s also faculty adviser for Brockport College Republicans.

“They don’t realize that if they pick up the newspaper, they can learn information about politics every day in their lives.”

Stephen Keblish understands this.

Although the political science major is not volunteering on any local campaigns, he hopes to hold several public debates with other groups on campus.

Whether you’re volunteering for a political party, voting for a candidate or both, Keblish says, he believes it’s important to be active in the political process somehow.

“If you aren’t involved, your voice isn’t being heard,” he adds. “If you want to be heard, you have to be involved.”

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