Jonathan L. Wharton

Last week was the first official week of classes at Southern Connecticut State University and I always enjoy the beginning of a new school year. It’s a fresh start and an awesome reminder of why I cherish teaching. However, one class has several students involved in local politics, which I was excited to hear until they introduced themselves and disclosed their adversities on the campaign trail. Quite frankly, a couple of them sounded like they were already done with politics, and I surprisingly offered no response.

It’s unlike me not to directly respond to their concerns as I was shell-shocked. And I’m disappointed that I did not offer a pep talk or positive thoughts. (I’m hoping this opportunity will allow me to formally respond to their concerns.) As a former local party chairman and campaign political director, I understand what my students are facing, and that’s why I hesitated. It takes a lot of effort to fundraise, find volunteers, and to organize campaigns. But to have “friendly fire” coming from within a campaign – from party officials – is especially problematic.

One student mentioned a politician’s threats, another was waiting for their pay, and a student councilman was fed up with the campaign process. A couple of more students added that they’re stressing over their campaign experiences. Essentially, my students are so turned off that they’re reconsidering politics.

As party chair, I was proud to have so many new but also young volunteers and donors. In one committee meeting, for example, a gubernatorial candidate publicly admitted that he never saw so many young people attend a local party committee meeting. I was able to help recruit nearby college students as well as high school students. They wanted to make a difference and they helped run and volunteer for campaigns. I emphasized student pricing for fundraisers.

At the same time, I also served as my political science department’s internship coordinator. I treasured this position because I served as a matchmaker between government agencies, nonprofits, and campaigns with our undergraduate and graduate students. Experiential learning is a critical element of understanding politics. I was taken aback that so many students, even outside our department, wanted to intern with a political campaign. Some mentioned they had a friend or family connection to a candidate and their campaign.

But let’s face it, few are engaged in the political and campaign process of local officials and candidates. Not too many of us pay attention to our communities’ issues, let alone know who’s running for office. Those who are involved are more than often retired or semi-retired volunteers and consultants. They have the time, know-how, and network.

So, when young volunteers help canvas or step up to be paid campaign staff, they are anomalies. Few teenagers or twenty-somethings know how to, nor do they want to be a part of the campaign process. One would think that they would be welcomed, but rarely are they embraced by candidates and campaigns considering their limited experience, idealism, and age-gap politics.

One would hope there would be more mentoring for younger campaign members. Instead, I had to hear my students discuss confrontations and negative experiences that have them rethinking engaging in local politics.

I hated hearing all of it, but I’m not surprised by their testimonies. We, particularly Generation X and Baby Boomers, need to do a better job of embracing and teaching Generations Y and Z about local campaigns. They’ve agreed to step up and we need to encourage more of them to do so and not turn them off. We must inspire and not discourage them about politics. Many younger voters are disheartened about national politics, but some are interested in making a difference in their communities. Let them – it’s overdue. Far too many of our local and state elected offices need fresh faces and new ideas.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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