By Laurie Hall
It's back. Minus the Flower Power slogans but still sporting some bell-bottoms, political activism returned to Sac State during the 2004 election season, powered by passions on both sides of the political spectrum.
Nationwide, students voted at a much higher rate in last fall's presidential
election of 2004 than their non-college counterparts. At Sac State, scores of student groups helped to make it happen by registering
voters, lining up speakers and giving their takes on the issues of the day. There was even a rebirth of sorts for two clubs that had been all but dormant since the 1970s-the College Democrats and the College
Republicans. And other politically charged student groups, such as Campus Peace Action, Democracy Matters and the Progressive Student
Union, made themselves known this election cycle.
Getting out the vote was one push all sides could agree on, with campus clubs combining to register more than 1,000 people in November alone. "Our major focus was voter registration," says College
Republicans president Adam Willoughby, 22. In addition to booths on the Library Quad, the College Republicans even crossed into opposition territory-not to the left but across the Causeway. "We set up voter registration tables at UC Davis during the Causeway Classic football game," Willoughby says.
"This time we had a lot more different clubs and organizations registering people to vote, so at times it was difficult finding people who weren't already signed up," says Olgalilia Ramirez, 23, co-director
of governmental affairs for Associated Students.
Groups also held rallies, sponsored candidate forums and held a Political Awareness Week. "We tried to inform them on issues that affect them," says Ramirez.
And like the rest of the country, the deep divisions that brought previously apolitical people out in force were also evident at Sac State.
Sean Fetters, president of the College Democrats, says the blue-versus-red tone of 2004 election had a great deal of impact. "The campus draws all the way from Chico to Roseville, so it gets a mix of cultures and everything else," says Fetters, 23. "There are other campus organizations that are a lot more 'left' than our group. But we all found a way to be together on some issues."
"Bush is a lighting rod," Willougby says. "You either really love him or really hate him and the issues he embodies and stands for. And there is a conservative streak on this campus."
And Olgalilia Ramirez, 23, co-director of governmental affairs for Associated Students, says that regardless of which camp they were in, "War was definitely a hot issue with students."
The differences have been handled cordially for the most part but the passions on both sides spilled over at times. Conservative students
demonstrated outside a campus screening of the provocative film Fahrenheit 911, while liberal groups complained that they had been shut out of a "support the troops" rally.
Campus administrators welcome the renewed activism as a vital part of the learning process. "Presidential elections are a great catalyst
for getting students involved in the political arena," says Vice President for Student Affairs Lori Varlotta. "No matter what a student does with their career, these skills are transferable. Skills you use in civic engagement are directly relatable to the next phase of life."
Varlotta adds that increasing opportunities for out-of-the-classroom
learning experiences falls directly in line with the University's Destination 2010 initiative's goals of fostering excellent academic and student programs, and developing community support. "At Sac State we're lucky because our co-curricular learning can easily be explicitly political in nature because of our location in the capital," she says.
In the campus' last political heyday in the mid-'60s and early '70s, the climate was less voter-centric and more vocal, more often. Protests and counter-protests-often led by faculty-were held on such topics such as the war in Viet Nam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Ronald Reagan's gubernatorial reelection campaign.
The Civil Rights movement spurred students to action, as did visits by Martin Luther King Jr. and Eldridge Cleaver. Then in 1970, after students were shot at Kent State University and days later, at Jackson
State, Sac State students demanded their campus be closed in protest. When President Otto Butz said no, some called for a strike, with about 40 setting up a campus "Strike Camp." The administration
compromised by offering "alternative education" courses for students who felt the need to protest rather than attend classes. The courses, which included "Community Organization" and "Action and Draft Resistance," drew up to 2,000 students per day.
And while much of the campus turmoil was based on national issues, it also had local flavor. The campus' closeness to the migrant farmworker movement spawned protests and a push for the State Hornet student newspaper to boycott ads by a winemaker.
The student activism of the '70s also provided the spark for the political futures of former Sac State students such as Ward Connerly,
who went on to be a highly visible member of the University of California Board of Regents; Grantland Johnson, who served as a regional director for the Department of Health and Human Services under the Clinton Administration; and Joe Serna, who was the mayor of Sacramento until his death in 1999.
As it did in other parts of the country, the campus' political profile went through an admittedly quiet period between the uproar of the '70s and the resurgence of the '00s. With the average Sac State student
getting older and many students working full time, there was less time for activism.
Today's students aren't any less busy-a sentiment echoed by student leaders. But students are beginning to make time for causes that matter to them.
Interest in politics is a natural outgrowth of the campus' close ties with the State Capitol. The University's Capital Fellows program draws graduate students from all over the country to work in paid fellowships in the legislature, executive branch and judiciary. Sacramento
Semester offers a similar program for undergraduates.
The capital connection also gets students more involved in state issues. Unlike students in other parts of the state, Sac State students often get to make their case to the "powers that be" on issues that affect students, such as tuition increases, or ballot initiatives that will impact higher education such as Prop. 209.
And being steps away from the Capitol offers rare opportunities to get up close and personal with state and national leaders. Presidential
candidates John McCain, Alan Keyes, Dennis Kucinich and 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry have made campaign swings through the campus in recent years, as have countless state and local candidates.
Of course, the biggest campaign event to hit Sac State also drew the attention of the world when the unprecedented California recall election brought now-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Green party candidate Peter Camejo, political columnist Arianna Huffington, and California State Sen. Tom McClintock here for a debate, along with hundreds of reporters. About 100 students had front row seats for the debate while others jammed the University
Union to catch a glimpse of history in the making.
Associated Students is doing its part to bump up student access to government by reviving a position first established in the '70s-student lobbyist. "The Capitol is right here. We should be the leaders in lobbying," says Martinez. "We want to put more focus on student lobbying efforts so students have a stronger voice."
- California State University, Sacramento: The First Forty Years: 1947-1987 by George Craft
- The State Hornet, Sacramento State College
- University of Maryland Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement