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CAMPUS CORRESPONDENCE : Are Disgruntled College Students the Latest Political Asset to be Exploited?

October 30, 1994|JAMES ROBERT SNYDER | James Thomas Snyder, a political science major at UCLA, is wire editor of the Daily Bruin. He is also the winner of the 1994 Carl J. Greenburg Prize for Political Reporting, awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists, Los Angeles

When gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown recently visited Santa Monica College, she wanted to meet the Next Generation constituency, to "get out the vote" and to push for more affordable public education. But beneath these defensible--indeed, laudable--goals was politics-as-usual. Brown's "Stop the Fee Hikes" rally highlighted the vital--and exploitable--role of younger voters.

Addressing her SMC audience, Brown said that she, like many of them, was a "non-traditional student who took seven and a half years to complete (her) degree" and went to night school for her law degree at age 40. "With apologies to David Letterman," she went on, "I have a 'Top 10 List of Why Wilson Needs To Go.' No. 10: He thinks the 'Motor Voter' bill is a heavy-metal rock band." She was referring to the law that combines voter and driver's license registration.

The crack was a striking example of just how crucial young voters are to her candidacy.

Brown knows that younger voters tend to vote Democratic. The 1992 Clinton presidential campaign was well aware of this correlation. It aggressively recruited college students and lobbied for a motor-voter bill. The Democrats were rewarded with more than 1 million new registered voters, most of them for Bill Clinton.

Behind in the polls, Brown naturally sees advantage in registering college students. At UCLA alone, activists have registered 5,000 new voters.

Yet, the choice of Santa Monica College as a site for a political rally was not a coincidence. Brown's campaign claims community colleges have lost nearly 130,000 students as a result of Gov. Pete Wilson's policies; Cal State campus enrollment is down 43,000. Community-college fees have jumped nearly 300%, while University of California fees have only doubled.

It thus made political sense to target SMC rather than UCLA--the largest UC campus and a mere 10 minutes away--because the number of students whom Brown claims were edged out of community college equals about 80% of the entire UC student body. In short, far more people--that is, voters--study at community colleges than on Cal State and UC campuses.

This isn't to say that Wilson isn't the same political animal. The governor recognizes the power of the young-Democrat demographic, now angry at the financial squeeze that has tightened during his tenure. Wilson opposed the Motor Voter bill and recently vetoed the Student Voting Rights Act, which would have set up polling stations on campuses. Had the law gone into effect, it would have become more convenient for more young Democrats to vote him out of office.

This quadrennial political exercise again illustrates the lengths to which politicians will go to channel idealism and activism their way. No longer will a candidate appeal to the younger generation out of simple patriotic obligation to exercise an inalienable democratic birthright.

Now the younger generation is either a political asset or liability. Today, youthful enthusiasm and hope exists to be exploited--or quelled.*

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