Limited student engagement continues to persist in local politics

Derek Remsburg/Senior Staff
Shawn Lewis, former Berkeley College Republicans president, debates with Caitlin Quinn, political director of Cal Berkeley Democrats, at the Daily Cal 2012 Election Forum.

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With UC Berkeley’s reputation for activism, it should come as no surprise that many of its students are politically involved.

Sproul Plaza is littered with pamphlets on Proposition 30. Student groups have sent members to campaign in Nevada for presidential candidates. Though it may not have the same fervor of 2008, student involvement in politics nationally and statewide is strong at UC Berkeley.

But what happens locally is a much different story. With Election Day less than a week away, Mayor Tom Bates personally joined the swarms of handbillers on Sproul Plaza, hoping to make sure students at the very least know his name.

“I would say (Cal students are) a small minority involved in a local campaign level,” said fourth year Thomas Kinzer, a volunteer for Councilmember Kriss Worthington’s mayoral campaign. “I would go so far as to say one out of two Cal students couldn’t even tell you who the mayor of Berkeley is.”

Though Kinzer does not doubt that Berkeley students are politically inclined, he feels that most of their attention is probably directed at a national level and not so much locally.

“When I went to a mayoral debate, I was the youngest guy there by 20 years, easy,” Kinzer said.

Bates understands the sentiment. Like any Berkeley student seasoned in the art of handing out flyers, Bates accepts rejection easily as groups of students swiftly move past him on their way to and from class.

However, some students who are informed and interested in politics do take the time to get involved locally.

Student groups like Cal Berkeley Democrats endorse candidates, such as when they endorsed Worthington for mayor — a fact Worthington touts proudly in his campaign material.

“A lot of our members really appreciated the amount of time that Kriss spent at (our) events,” said CalDems President Daniel Tuchler.

Moreover, some of these locally involved students actually do move on to bigger commitments within the city. Readily visible examples include Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, Rent Board Commissioner Igor Tregub and mayoral candidate Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi. All are UC Berkeley alumni and were involved in local government during their time as students.

But these locally involved students remain an unsung minority. More students prefer to go for the more captivating — or perhaps more glamorous — political issues statewide and nationally.

Tuchler said CalDems have been more focused on national or state matters, like Prop. 30. They have not campaigned for Worthington despite their endorsement.

The Berkeley College Republicans have also been sending members across the state working in various campaigns for candidates like Peter Tateishi for the California State Assembly and Dan Lungren for Congress, said BCR President Derek Zhou.

Zhou said that many of BCR’s members are interested in local candidates, though the club itself has made no endorsements.

Another visible example lies with the ASUC. The ASUC held a forum on Prop. 30 Tuesday night. Conversely, it canceled its local mayoral forum on Oct. 3 so as not to compete with the presidential debate.

Even former ASUC Senator Sydney Fang readily admits that students simply are not very interested in local issues for the most part.

“Just from conversations with folks, students feel disconnected from the community,” Fang said. “They feel like, ‘Oh, I’m just here for school.’”

Despite being rather politically involved, Fang admitted that she has heard little about the local Berkeley election in comparison to the larger state and national races.

“The circles I run in are very politically active, and there’s really no discussion of any kind on local elections,” Fang said.

Jaehak Yu is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected].