Most students indifferent to upcoming local political races

by Beacon Staff • September 23, 2009

Despite spokespeople from both sides of the city's upcoming mayoral race - arguably the tightest sitting mayor Thomas M. Menino has ever faced-lauding the importance of college students, many Emersonians say they have no interest in local politics.,It's a far cry from the buttons worn and banners flown on Boston Common when a then-campaigning Barack Obama came to town in 2007.

Despite spokespeople from both sides of the city's upcoming mayoral race - arguably the tightest sitting mayor Thomas M. Menino has ever faced-lauding the importance of college students, many Emersonians say they have no interest in local politics.

"I usually don't think that there are too many political issues that really affect me directly," said Shane Seibel, a junior film major.

Students interviewed agreed that they were less energized by this round of local elections, if at all. Although city ordinances passed by the city council, in addition to the mayor's attitude toward students, have in the past influenced the lives of the 160,000 Boston college students more immediately than national laws, many Emerson students said they know very little about the mayoral election.

Elsewhere in Boston, excitement is growing much faster. Menino's competitor City Councilor Michael Flaherty, finished second to Menino in Tuesday's primary against City Councilor-at-Large Sam Yoon and businessman Kevin McCrea. Menino has been in office since 1993, obliterating candidates in four past elections in the process.

The upcoming chance to oust him has created an interesting political environment for Bostonians, especially when combined with an empty Massachusetts Senate seat.

But for the average Emerson student, the primary and upcoming elections were barely a blip on the radar, students said, despite the fact that local pols stand to make the most direct impact on students' lives. Students who live in the city are required to abide by city laws and ordinances, and have a greater chance coming into contact with city government if they live off-campus.

This year the Boston City Council passed a controversial resolution limiting the number of students living together off-campus to four. Though landlords have called the measure "unenforcable," the move was a sharp reminder of just how local politics can affect students.

"All we've been seeing are names, not really issues," said Camy Bravo, a sophomore marketing communication major. She and Jeff Coons, a sophomore majoring in post production, said they only vaguely remembered Yoon, who stood to become Boston's first Asian-American mayor. Bravo added, "We're just getting names shouted at us."

Seibel said he doesn't own a television and said he would probably be interested in local politics if he knew more about the race. Design technology major Brittany White felt similarly, saying she didn't find information on candidates readily available to her.

"Unless you go looking for the information, you're not going to find it," said White, a junior. "It's just something I've never really been interested in."

Representatives from both Menino's and Flaherty's campaigns insisted that college voters are important to them and listed their attempts to engage that young population.

"Boston is a very young city," said Flaherty spokesperson Natasha Perez. "A big part of [Flaherty's] campaign is trying to keep young people in Boston. We have an intellectual drain in the city because we are not doing enough to keep them here."

Nick Martin, director of communications for Menino's campaign, said colleges in the area are one of the campaign's greatest assets. Martin said Menino has been campaigning through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as employing students in his campaign office.

"A lot of the volunteer help that we rely on [for the campaign] is college students," Martin said. "Any given day of the week there are a dozen college age interns in the office."

In terms of legislation and city initiatives, Menino and Flaherty have supported several similar measures that could appeal to students, from Menino's push to make Boston more bicycle friendly and for extended MBTA running hours, to Flaherty's insistence on affordable housing and zoning for new businesses. So why aren't Emersonians jazzed about the election?

"People have grown so accustomed to Mayor Menino," said Dr. Gregory Payne, an associate professor in Emerson's Communication Studies program and the advisor for Emerson's chapter of the Communications, Politics, and Law Association. "The opposition has not found any chinks in Menino's armor. People are still sleeping through the whole thing."

The Emerson admissions office estimated about 540 students at Emerson are from Massachusetts, with many less from the Boston area itself, so some students don't feel that a mayoral election concerns them. As Perez pointed out, students often leave Boston after completing their education.

"I think you get your rare political dweebs," said Alex Pearson, a senior active in Emerson Democrats and majoring in political communications with a political science minor. "But I think most college students are issue voters. They are focused on their futures."

Other Emersonians worry that students are not being proactive enough in a political environment that concerns them, especially off-campus Emersonians who must follow city housing rules.

"Renting an apartment requires you to sign a legal contract, obey city and state-specific laws, deal with landlords," said Shannon Felton, a senior political communication major with moderate-conservative political views. Felton said she signed up to vote as soon as she moved into Boston last year.

"Why on Earth would you not want to be able to use the government to help you and to understand your rights?"