Growth in student election involvement is indicative of a building movement
Walking to class on Nov. 7, I pass a group of students carrying red Ginger Jentzen signs, chatting excitedly on the way to the polls. As I step onto campus, I see several students sporting the “I Voted” stickers on their backpacks and coats. Even though I submitted my ballot by mail several weeks before, the energy on Election Day is contagious.
This year saw an increase in student engagement in the local elections, both in voting numbers and in participation with various city-level campaigns. Sonia Neculesuc, political director for the student group Women For Political Change (WFPC) has some ideas about the cause of this trend in participation.
“That really wasn’t random, and that really wasn’t due to just one campaign,” Neculescu said. “All of the credit is due to students who kind of crafted these movements themselves, and have been building power for the last several years.”
In addition to her leadership role with WFPC, Neculescu served as youth director on Raymond Dehn’s mayoral campaign. Dehn lost his race to fellow DFL candidate Jacob Frey, despite amassing a large base of student support. Neculescu explained how Dehn got plugged into the campus activist community.
“Ray is a great candidate, and a great leader and person in general, but a lot of the foundation of our campaign, a lot of our successes, were built upon the work that a lot of students have done leading up to 2017,” Neculescu said. “We built off a lot of the momentum we saw in Ilhan Omar’s race.”
Like Omar, who endorsed Dehn for mayor, Dehn made himself present to students, attending meet-and-greets on Sunday nights at Purple Onion in Dinkytown. Both candidates made a point of attending student functions, and responding to the policy concerns that are most dear to students.
All of the credit is due to students who kind of crafted these movements themselves, and have been building power for the last several years.
“I think students are really passionate about the issues,” Neculescu said. “Especially issues like 15Now. That’s why Ginger Jentzen was able to have such a strong student presence. Students were mobilizing for that issue for several years.”
Neculescu emphasized the particular power of students in local elections: “I think we have a lot of passion, and haven’t been burnt out yet.”
“I did do a lot of work with canvassing other parts of the city,” Neculescu said. “I think that it really is powerful to knock on people’s doors. Even in Como, where it’s half students and half long-time residents, it was really powerful for them to see young people out so passionate, and that really made them stop and listen.”
Despite Dehn’s loss, Neculescu is happy with the results and impact of the election.
“I personally didn’t get the results that I wanted from my race, but overall, we elected a lot of progressive candidates,” Neculescu said. “And I’m really happy not just because of the results, but because of the turnout and the level of student engagement that came out of this election … it’s giving us a really good foundation to continue to build on moving forward.”
Neculescu intends to harness this energy though WFPC activities in the coming months. She started the group with a few friends during her freshman year in response to a lack of the kind of direct action that they were looking for in other already-existing groups.
“We really wanted a group that was inclusive, not just as a buzzword, but actually inclusive,” Neculescu explained. “We wanted a group that actually went out in the community and did something.
In the beginning, it was only a handful of members, mostly the friends who had started the group. Ilhan Omar reached out to WFPC when she was beginning to build her campaign, finding them in the student directory. Neculescu sites her as one of their biggest supporters from the beginning, helping them focus their activism and build to be the several-hundred-member-strong group they are today.
We wanted a group that actually went out in the community and did something.
This year, nearly every person on the executive board of WFPC had a key role in one of the local campaigns: Aurin Chowdhury, president, was campaign manager for Andrea Jenkins for Ward 8; Lara Schueth, treasurer, was a field organizer for Phillipe Cunningham in Ward 4; Hannah Kloos, event coordinator, was a field organizer for Raymond Dehn; and Symantha Clough, event coordinator, was an organizer for Samantha Pree-Stinson’s Ward 3 campaign.
Despite their growth over the years, the goal at the heart of WFPC has remained the same.
“We really want to make political activism as accessible for people as possible,” Neculescu said. “We have a lot of different issue campaigns that we’re trying to push. Renaming Coffman is a big one. Pushing for 15Now at the University level is another big one. It’s going to be pushing issues moving forward, and then seeing which candidates enter our space on those issues.”
Neculescu is optimistic that student engagement will continue to grow: “The most important thing that I learned in this whole thing is that yes, the candidates were really great that students worked for, but it’s all really issues, and these candidates really championed the issues students care about, and this gave us a lot of confidence to push forward these issues, so now we’re going to continue that.