Youthful enthusiasm fuels Obama campaign

By Stephanie Clary
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

It has been well acknowledged that history was made at the Democratic National Convention when Sen. Barack Obama became the first African-American to win a major party’s presidential nomination.

But the delegates in attendance provided the DNC with additional bragging rights: About 630 delegates under the age of 36 were in Denver last week — more than had attended any other convention.

Those 17- to 35-year-olds made up 16 percent of all DNC delegates, an increase from 9 percent eight years ago.

Boulder’s Sarah Kihm, 20, said she and her peers are taking part in this election primarily because it offered an opportunity to make history.

“The historic nature of this election … in itself is going to inspire the youth to get involved,” said Kihm, a University of Colorado student who founded CU Students for Obama.

She also noted that many issues, such as the war in Iraq and education, directly affect the nation’s young people.

“The youth, in particular, are fed up,” Kihm said.

And while at the convention, she said, young Democrats’ voices were respected.

“It’s been amazing. It’s like age doesn’t matter (at the DNC),” Kihm said.

But the youth of many who attended the convention was noticed by voter mobilization groups, politicians, celebrities and journalists who also were in Denver last week. And they made efforts to reach them through panels, parties and meetings throughout the week.

The message from all was clear: mobilize the youth. And many did so by emphasizing their chance to make history.

“Your generation is going to remake America,” said DNC Chairman Howard Dean at a youth caucus meeting. “Are you going to remake it now? If we don’t do it now, the country is going to be in bad shape …”

Dean also used statistics to prove that young voters have an impact when he said voters under the age of 30 had increased their turnout by 26 percent in the 2004 election. He also communicated a need for urgent action on the youth’s part in this election.

At the two-hour meeting on Aug. 28 at the Wells Fargo Theatre, Dean was joined by politicians, musicians and actors who reiterated his push to get young Democrats involved sooner rather than later.

DNC Secretary Alice Travis Germond compared the crowd’s generation to her own as she told stories of her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.

She then went on to say that young people now have an opportunity to create their own stories as history is made.

“We get to nominate Barack Obama,” Germond said. “It shows the power of change, the power of youth, and the power of dreams.”

Germond also suggested it’s time for some torch-passing.

“Enjoy the life you’re starting in politics,” she said. “Keep the fire alive and let me go home and get some rest.”

Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer used a more-recent historical anecdote to mobilize those in the Wells Fargo Theatre before they began to trickle out to attend Obama’s nomination speech at Invesco Field.

Steny spoke of Michael Phelps, who is from Maryland, and the work the world-record swimmer did before he claimed the most gold medals of any Olympian while in Beijing.

“Six, seven hours, six days a week, Michael Phelps spent in the pool year after year after year,” Hoyer said. “We have about 70 days (until Election Day). Spend your six, seven, eight, nine or 10 hours in that pool every day … Barack Obama and Joe Biden can grab that gold medal.”

Other speakers that afternoon were pushier.

Chuck Rocha, political director of the United Steelworkers of America, attacked the belief that the youth are the future.

“You’re not the future of the Democratic Party — you’re the damn backbone,” he said. “Hope ain’t going to happen unless we get in the streets.”

Alexandra Acker, the national executive director of Young Democrats of America, made a similar remark when it was her turn to speak.

She added that the key issues of this election and the growth of youth organizations created “the perfect storm election year” for young voters to make a difference.

Acker also said the key to getting people to the polls isn’t celebrity endorsements.

Celebrities “can help draw attention,” Acker said. “But celebrities don’t turn out the vote. Talking to peers does.”

Nevertheless, the DNC had its fair share of celebrities. Hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas, actress Jessica Alba, singer John Legend and actor Malik Yoba were among the many notable names in Denver last week.

Yoba was the celebrity guest on the Aug. 27 panel “Change Agents: Access, Influence, Empowerment,” sponsored by the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Rock The Vote and IMPACT and moderated by CNN political analyst and journalist Roland Martin.

The groups work to inform and mobilize young voters and emerging leaders.

The Why Did I Get Married? actor sat among a BET journalist, a CEO and politicians — both younger and more-seasoned — in an effort to bridge a gap between young and old in politics, according to a press release explaining the event.

And before each member of the panel gave advice on how to apply the wisdom of elders to a young person’s energetic, though sometimes impatient, personality, moderator Martin had a stern warning for the young people in the room at the Colorado Convention Center.

“How many of you are prepared to act on what we talk about in here?” he asked the room of about 70 people. “Because if not, you can leave right now. I don’t do rhetorical orgies … If you don’t take what you are about to hear, you have wasted your time and ours.”

Christina Johnson, a 23-year-old from Denver, said she was ready to pursue her goals after attending the panel. She wants to be a philanthropist and came to hear advice on how to get going.

“I’m excited to be more involved in politics,” she said.

Wearing a self-made T-shirt with an ironed-on image of Obama on the front and a quote from the presidential nominee on the back, 24-year-old Pamela Porter captured photos of the U.S. representatives and media members on the panel as it wrapped up.

The Denver resident said the Obama campaign is “adding fuel to the fire” with its message of change. And that message is what is making her excited to participate in the upcoming election.

Porter said for candidates to connect with young voters “one of the biggest things they can do is make an impact in the environments we live in … (both McCain and Obama) are very smart to use global media” in their campaigns.

She was referencing to the use of YouTube to show political advertisements and speeches by both campaigns’ Web sites, and Obama’s use of text messaging to communicate with supporters.

And it’s Obama in particular that got Erica Hixson, a 19-year-old delegate and Colorado State University student, excited to get involved in politics.

“Barack has a way of appealing to young people because he’s so inspiring,” she said while on the convention floor Aug. 27. There’s a “freshness of him being a new politician.”

And what’s the key to tapping young voters? Johnson said it’s not that hard to be effective without being condescending.

“Do you, be yourself,” she said. Young people, “we tend to be ourselves.”