Conference Promotes Interest in Electoral Politics
“This weekend is a celebration!” declared Ronald Kahn, James Monroe professor of politics and law and director of the Oberlin Initiative in Electoral Politics. These words launched this past weekend’s three-day political conference, “Election 2006 and the Future of American Politics,” put on by OIEP.
The event marked the 12-year anniversary of OIEP. The program was designed to promote interest in electoral politics and encourage students to pursue careers as elected officials. The program, however, has evolved since 1994. Today it seems to function as a general training ground for future political operatives.
The participants in OIEP are called “Cole Scholars,” named after the donors Richard and Dorothy Cole, both OC ’56. The Scholars take a semester-long course to prepare for a paid summer internship at a campaign, usually of their own choosing. Their housing and food is paid for. When they return to school, they finish off their experience with a follow-up seminar in electoral politics.
“We thought the goal was [preparing Cole Scholars for] elected office,” Kahn explained, “but the real goal was working in politics.”
According to Kahn, one of the goals of the conference was to illustrate the diversity of opportunity in the political arena. The weekend was divided into five panels and three keynote speeches, with time in between for meals and mingling. Present on every single panel was at least one former Cole scholar, some of them very recent Oberlin graduates. Many former Cole Scholars have gone on to become staff members for current elected officials and none of them have yet reached their forties.
Panelists — Cole alumni and otherwise — included representatives from every walk of political life, from legislative assistants and interns to John Lawrence OC ’70, chief of staff to U.S. Congresswoman and House-Speaker-Elect Nancy Pelosi to Adrian Fenty OC ’92, Washington D.C. mayor-elect.
Though it has been twelve years since its founding, the OIEP has yet to have a Cole Scholar take an elected office, though Kahn is optimistic. However, alumni pre-dating the Cole program ascended to high-ranking state and national office, during this month’s midterm elections.
Two of them appeared at this past weekend’s conference. Fenty spoke in a Saturday morning panel on “Winning Big City Elections.” He emphasized the need for campaigners to step outside of their traditional constituencies and address all potential voters. He believed his victory in D.C. came as a result of his willingness to visit every district in the city, rather than just a few carefully targeted ones.
As of Tuesday, Lee Fisher OC ’73 is the Lieutenant-Governor-Elect of Ohio. The conference hosted his first speech since his election. Much like Fenty, he stressed the importance of addressing the entire voting block rather than just a specific constituency. He and Strickland visited every county in Ohio in their 2006 campaign.
Kahn, Fisher’s former professor, spoke affectionately of this alum.
“You can see what it means to be a campaigner [when you listen to him],” Kahn said. “As a teacher it’s just wonderful when you can see your students grow and grow.”
As the scope of OIEP’s objectives has broadened so have the ambitions of its participants. Some students have chosen to develop skills appropriate to working as staff aides to elected officials, while others chose to focus on political advocacy or some form of communication. Kahn says that as long as the result is well-trained political workers, the OIEP sees itself as a success.
“Now that we know the program works we’re not going to be so worried about elected office,” he said. “We think that will happen.”
In the end, while the conference aimed to provide a general perspective on the midterms — how it came about and what its longer-reaching results will be — the underlying theme was how much individuals can contribute to the process, and how much Oberlin alumni already have.
“What you’re doing is you’re honoring Oberlin students, some of them that have just been out two years, others that have been out thirty-five or forty years,” said Kahn. “It’s really important that we see that Oberlinians are doing it early and often relative to making this world a better place to live in. That’s the key.”