Promising legalized marijuana + puns + a college campus = increased civic participation of university students?
This is a formula Daniel Biss’ gubernatorial campaign employed when canvassing at Northwestern. NU students working for the campaign stood at the Arch, holding signs reading “CANNABISS” and asking their peers if they were registered to vote in Illinois.
According to a Tufts study, college student voter turnout increased from 45.1 percent to 48.3 percent nationally from 2012 to 2016. In 2017, Northwestern won five awards at the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge Award Ceremony in Washington, D.C., including highest voting rate among large, private four-year institutions and most improved voting rate among all U.S. universities. College students vote – so these Northwestern student activists have the opportunity to make a significant impact on the political landscape.
For Weinberg political science junior Dylan Doppelt, this work began during the 2012 presidential election. He spent the summer working at Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago and making hundreds of calls to voters across the state. He drove out to Iowa every other weekend in a van packed with other volunteers to spend the day knocking on doors. Doppelt is no stranger to the ups and downs of political campaigns. After getting his start with the Obama candidacy, he worked on Pat Quinn’s 2014 campaign for Illinois governor. “I think I was the most active volunteer that couldn’t vote for [Quinn],” he says. “That was a joke in my local area.”
Seeing deportation raids on his block, the border between the two strong immigrant communities of Humboldt Park and Hermosa in Chicago, motivated Doppelt to create change via politics. His father’s encouragement of civic involvement also played a role. “He always made sure I’d sit down and watch the nightly news with him, so I always knew what was going on,” Doppelt says. “He took me to a couple canvassing events for Obama 2008 when I was a lot younger.”
After the Quinn campaign, Doppelt joined Jesús “Chuy” García’s team when he ran against incumbent Rahm Emanuel in 2015 for mayor of Chicago. Next was Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election primary, followed by Hillary Clinton once she received the Democratic nomination for the general election. Most recently, he worked for the Daniel Biss Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign.
But, Doppelt is not the only Northwestern student who has worked on political candidacies. During the 2017 election for Evanston mayor, fifth-year McCormick student Sean van Dril stood at the Arch and Tech, campaigning for Steve Hagerty. He says he and other volunteers met immense skepticism from other students in spite of students’ theoretical desires to get involved politically, particularly after the election of President Trump.
Van Dril found students to be most comfortable and familiar with political involvement “from 50,000 feet up” - there were many students who would talk the talk, but few who would walk the walk. Van Dril says when students are forced to take a stand on something, actions like voting and volunteering locally can be scarier than just echoing what is popular to disagree with. At times, van Dril was accused of not even being a Northwestern student. “They say, ‘Your candidate, he’s paying you, isn’t he?’” van Dril says. “And it’s like, ‘Nope, I just believe in his message.’”
This was a common thread between eight Northwestern students who’ve worked on political campaigns – they certainly weren’t in it for the money. Though some were paid for their work, they were motivated primarily by their belief in specific candidates, interest in politics at large or personal inclination to make positive change.
Weinberg political science sophomore Alex Neumann also canvassed for Daniel Biss. His political interest was sparked by his fathers’ work in fighting for same-sex marriage equality when he was growing up. Since coming to college, the history of corrupt machine politics in Illinois further drew him into political involvement. “I was drawn to how exciting it is, how much people care, but also how much wrong there is, and how much there is to change,” he says. “We tailored our message as students working for the campaign to what we thought students would be most excited about,” Neumann says, citing the “CANNABISS” signs they employed while canvassing at the Arch.
In college, Weinberg junior Joshua Gottlieb worked on the finance team for Andrew Cuomo’s New York gubernatorial campaign. This was following his volunteer work in Congresswoman Nita Lowey’s office, where he worked specifically in constituent relations, answering phones and helping callers solve problems they had with federal agencies, such as Veterans Affairs. “I thought it was cool how you could help people at the grassroots level,” Gottlieb says.
Most recently, he had an internship with the Chris Kennedy campaign in the race for Illinois governor. This internship built on his previous political experiences and desire to attend law school someday - but not before accomplishing a more short-term objective. “My big goal is to work on the campaign that gets Donald Trump out of office,” he says.
Weinberg senior Cecilia Wilson’s political origin story is similar to those of others her age – she’d always had an interest in politics, but the 2016 presidential election made her want to work in the field. After a summer internship on the Hill last year with her congressional representative from Washington state, Suzan DelBene, she worked as a field fellow for Daniel Biss. In February, she started as deputy communications director for Idaho gubernatorial campaign for Paulette Jordan, who could be the first Native American governor ever in the United States.
“The thing about politics that’s both scary because of a lack of stability but also kind of nice for someone like me is that it has a distinct end date,” Wilson says. “Nothing is a job that I’m going to get stuck in for a long time.”
Others agreed that they want to have careers related to law and politics, though not necessarily as politicians themselves. Of the students who worked with older (and sometimes paid) members of the campaign, all the male interns interviewed said they were treated just like any other staffer.
This was not the case for SESP sophomore Isabel Dobbel. Since starting in nonprofit campaign work through Engage Chicago last summer, she has worked on four different campaigns for various state offices. In one of these offices – she is not comfortable detailing which – she says she was continually disrespected by older men, with comments made about her looks and ethnicity, devaluation of her work and requests to do menial tasks, such as cleaning the office.
“The campaign manager needed a dog to kick,” Dobbel says an older woman on the campaign told her. “I and the other young woman in the office were [those dogs], because it made him feel better about himself.”
But Dobbel doesn’t let that negative experience keep her from continuing in politics – she hopes to work on a campaign for the 2020 presidential election and do campaign work and political consulting out of undergrad. She plans to eventually attend law school and “[become] the person who can start initiating the change.”
“Young ideas are on the rise,” she says. “There’s a lot of successful politicians and college students that have made this huge difference off of the platform that ‘I’m normal, I’m young, but I care about my future.’”