Red state, blue state
Photos by Tim Johnson
All eyes will fall on our perpetually purple state next month to watch which way Ohio sways the presidential vote. Fighting the battle at home, the next generation of politicos has emerged to spread messages of hope and change. Young volunteers and staff members knock on doors, register voters and spend long hours on the phone with undecided voters. They gave up summer vacation, and some took time off school to campaign before the Nov. 6 election. Meet four young people dedicating their time to the campaign this fall.
Niraj Antani was politically active long before he could vote. The son of Indian immigrants fell in love with politics at age 9. He first interned for a public official, U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, at age 16. Now 21, the Ohio State political science major juggles class and campaign activities, such as door-to-door neighborhood canvassing, for Gov. Mitt Romney as part of the Ohio State College Republicans.
What can Mitt Romney do for young people?
I think the main concern students have right now is that every student will graduate. We want to ensure there is a job market available to students. And I think the main issue is ensuring we have a president who knows how to create jobs. Right now that is not the case.
What is your first political campaign memory?
Election night in 2000. I was 9. I didn’t know what was going on, but I remember they called it for Bush, and then for Gore. My parents were watching but they went to sleep. I woke them up at 2 a.m. and was like, “Hey, Gore won.” Then at 4 a.m., I woke them up and said, “Hey, Bush won.” It went on for days and days and I was really confused. Don’t they just know who won?
Do you have political aspirations?
I want to run. My parents emigrated from India in the ’70s. They moved to America in the hopes that they would be prosperous and wanted their kids to have a better life, and luckily we found that. I got engaged in politics because I care about issues and I see problems and I want to fix them.
Are young people engaged enough in politics?
I think America as a whole is not engaged enough in politics. We should have more people voting. What college students need to understand is that voting matters. If President Obama gets reelected, you will graduate in an economy where you won’t find a job.
How are you received on campus?
What you’re seeing in 2012 is a lot different than 2008. In 2008, there was a lot of enthusiasm for Obama’s campaign. This year, we had 275 people at our first meeting, ready to volunteer, ready to go. The enthusiasm levels are sort of balancing. I’m not going to say we’re going to win the college vote, because we’re not. Hopefully maybe in four or eight years we’ll convince college students that conservative ideals will work for them.
Jacob Manser became a Barack Obama supporter at 15, when he heard him on TV addressing gay rights issues. Manser recalls Obama saying the issues were “too often exploited by people who seek to divide us and that at its core it’s about who we are as Americans.” Five years later, the Columbus native has taken time off school at Ohio State to work as the LGBT vote director for Obama’s Ohio campaign.
What do you do for the Obama campaign?
I organize the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in conjunction with our field team. That means traveling the state, organizing at Pride festivals, reaching out, making sure they’re talking to neighbors and friends and families. Some days it’s reaching out to small businesses, making sure they’re registering voters. Some days I’m in the office planning our next big move.
How did you get involved?
In 2008, I was a neighborhood team leader in the Clintonville area. After 2008, it was so important to me to do everything I can to ensure progress for LGBT Ohioans. We’ve seen so
much forward progress and it was so important that continues. If that meant taking time off school, or whatever that took, I needed to do it. Every day feels like a week sometimes, but it’s great to get up every day and do this.
What is it like working in a swing state?
It’s a lot of fun. I think a lot of folks will tell you this year it will come down to Ohio. Being able to work in a state that’s going to decide an election, that’s pretty exciting. And folks in Ohio know that.
What has President Obama done for the LGBT community?
He’s done so much. Repealing don’t ask don’t tell is huge. No longer do Ohioans have to lie to support the country they love. And that speaks so much to his value of fairness and equality. He hosted the first youth bullying summit at the White House and attacked head on the issue of bullying that youth face every day. Those are some of the biggest things, but there are so many other accomplishments.
What do your parents think of you working for the campaign?
I think they’re proud. They see the work that I do and they don’t necessarily understand it all when I get home at 11:30 p.m. and reply to their email from two weeks ago, but I think they’re proud.
Drew Stroemple was 8 when his teacher asked him to color either an elephant or a donkey for the coming elections. “I didn’t know, but something about that elephant felt right,” the Ohio State political science major says. Stroemple, 20, has worked on several campaigns, including interning for U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, and is president of the Ohio State College Republicans.
What have you done to support Mitt Romney’s campaign?
It’s very grassroots focused. It’s very powerful when you have a young person on your doorstep saying, “I care about the debt and the economy and I believe Gov. Romney is the candidate to change that.” I’ve worked very hard to get young people to knock on doors and make calls and spread the message.
How did you get involved in political work?
I watched the 2008 election because I was in (advanced placement) government in high school at the time. I never thought about which party I aligned with. I was very impressed by Obama; he was a very aspiring figure. But I started to look at the issues and what I cared about, and that was when I started to find I didn’t align with his views. Then after watching what the president did in his first two years in office, I thought it was not what the country needed. So in 2010, I finally decided to do something about it. I got involved with Rep. Jim Renacci in Northeast Ohio. I fell in love with politics.
Are young people engaged in politics?
We need to get more people engaged. I think we’re starting to be successful. You can see the enthusiasm when students knock on doors, when they see Gov. Romney at a rally. If we could just get more kids at these events, we’ll get more people engaged. It’s slow, and it’s a tough process.
What is it like working in a swing state?
I’m so fortunate to be, not just in Ohio, but in such an important county. Being in Columbus we have so many opportunities to be politically active. I tell the kids to take advantage of it because not everyone gets this chance.
Are your parents Republican?
Both my parents support Gov. Romney. My mom’s not too political. She tells me, “I don’t care if you’re a Republican. Just don’t be corrupt. Don’t have an affair.” My dad’s more into politics. He’s always forwarding me emails about what’s going on. They’ve encouraged me and helped me out when I want to do volunteer work.
Sara Valentine doesn’t sleep much these days. When the Ohio State junior isn’t attending class, she’s interning for Barack Obama’s campaign, registering students as voters (her goal is 30 a day). The 20-year-old political science major is the president of Buckeyes for Obama and campaign coordinator for the Ohio State University Democrats.
How are you supporting President Obama’s campaign?
We’re having a huge voter registration initiative. We have a high goal and we’re hitting that hard. We’re trying to prove people wrong: We are not young apathetic voters. We care about this election.
Do you think young people are engaged enough in politics?
It depends on the issue. Every single person has an issue that is important to them, including me. The president has done so many great things for students. He doubled the Pell grant funding, and that affected me personally. My mom’s a single parent. I don’t have the luxury of asking her for $25,000 for school. The cost of college has gone up substantially, and any help I can get from the president is great.
What is your first political campaign memory?
I was in elementary school, and we had a makeshift election for the Bush/Kerry race. I remember being quite excited that Kerry had won in school, even if that wasn’t the case in the real world. I remember being very excited about that. I love politics.
Is your family involved in politics?
There is no one in my family who is politically active. I got the bug pretty early. I like standing up for people who don’t have a voice. I could go and make a difference in another job, but if they don’t have the funding to continue with the program, they won’t be able to make a difference.
How do you balance school and campaigning?
It’s hard balancing so many things, but that’s how I like it. I’m a fulltime student and work with the campaign. I can come out of class and help with registration. I can get people while they are getting dinner.
Do you have any political aspirations?
I have quite a few, but you know we’ll see. I hope to run someday, when I get out of college. I’ll probably go to law school. But whatever life brings, we’ll see.