Student Well-Being

To Iowa Students, All Politics Is Local

By Sean Cavanagh — January 07, 2004 7 min read
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Election 2004

They have blitzed campaign offices by phone and questioned a presidential contender face to face. They have hobnobbed with top-dollar political contributors (without shelling out so much as a nickel) and cornered the nation’s elected elite as carnivorously as Gucci- shoed Washington lobbyists.

They are members of this year’s graduating class at Johnston Senior High School, and they are learning that the democratic process—once again unfolding in their home state of Iowa as its Jan. 19 presidential caucuses draw near— rewards those who talk the loudest.

At the urging of Johnston High government teacher Jay Shackett, students from this comfortable suburb of Des Moines have prodded and needled the candidates for the 2004 Democratic nomination (as politely as possible) to show up at their school, spell out their platforms, and try to win over the teenage voting bloc.

“We expect them to do it,” said Corey J. Goerdt, an 18-year-old senior. “These are politicians who are making our decisions for us. We want to know how to get ahold of them, and let them know where we stand on things. There’s no better way to do it than by learning now.”

In October, a sizable chunk of the 125 or so seniors in Mr. Shackett’s classes launched “The Week of 1,000 Phone Calls,” an all-out effort to contact the candidates and persuade them to show up at their school before the caucuses.

Their first target was Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Later it was Sen. John Kerry’s turn. Pretty soon phones in former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s offices started ringing. And on it went.

Aggravating? Try naming a powerful constituency that isn’t, Mr. Shackett said.

“Our form of government responds to those who make the most noise,” the 27-year-old teacher explained recently, reciting a message posted on his classroom’s wall. “I tell them, ‘Go make your noise.’ ”

Campaign Lessons

As of late last month, the only candidate to respond to Johnston High’s organized ruckus by appearing at the school was Mr. Dean. The students haven’t been discouraged, however.

“‘When you started phone-banking us, we knew we had to be here,’” Mr. Shackett recalled Mr. Dean quipping when the candidate showed up at the school in November.

Johnston High School’s fervid activism is just one example of the way in which teachers, administrators, and other school officials across Iowa use the state’s quadrennial political ritual as a classroom tool and a launching point for civic involvement.

In some schools, accomplishing those goals means leading students through lessons on how the Iowa caucus process, little understood outside the state, works. In others, classes pick apart the scripted stump themes that bombard the state’s voters daily.

“Government teachers are usually political animals,” said Carol S. Brown, who worked in the 32,000- student Des Moines public schools for more than 30 years as a social studies teacher and curriculum supervisor. “They’re committed to building a participatory government. ... We just want kids to begin to be comfortable in their caucuses, so that they want to go.”

This time of year, White House hopefuls court Iowans at pancake breakfasts and chamber of commerce luncheons; mass-mail them brochures, mini-booklets, and videocassettes; and leave recorded messages on their home answering machines, soliciting support.

All of that toil is directed toward Jan. 19, when Iowans will gather in senior centers, church basements, living rooms, and other locales across 1,997 precincts to do their part in picking a president. A caucus is a gathering of political-party members, who, instead of casting ballots privately in voting booths, meet in groups to express their candidate preferences and review party platforms. Both Democrats and Republicans are staging caucuses this month, though the GOP event is largely a formality at which party attendees are expected to back President George W. Bush for renomination.

Students can vote in one or the other of the parties’ caucuses if they will turn 18 by November’s presidential election and have filled out party-registration forms. Many of Mr. Shackett’s seniors will meet that age qualification.

Because Iowa’s caucuses are the first state battleground in the nominating process, they carry particular weight. A strong showing can act as a political slingshot, propelling a candidate into later primaries and caucuses as a front- runner; a lackluster performance can derail those hopes.

Politely Pushing Hard

“Political involvement is a learned behavior,” said Chet J. Culver, Iowa’s secretary of state and a former high school government teacher. “Young people want to vote, but we don’t do enough to invite them in. They say, ‘The special interests have access. The seniors have access. We don’t have it.’”

Mr. Culver, a Democrat whose office oversees elections in Iowa, has tried to boost civic interest among students through programs such as the Iowa Student Political Awareness Club, a nonpartisan organization that provides students with election information through newsletters, the Internet, and other guides. In trying to reach this crop of candidates, Johnston High’s motto was “Kill ‘em with kindness.” Still, the students know their organized- phoning tactics ended up rankling some campaign aides.

“There is an attitude [involved], and I take no shame in it,” said Mr. Shackett, whose school is part of the 4,700-student Johnston Community School District. “There is a little bit of agitation. But democracy requires agitation. I have no problem telling students, ‘Go beat the drum.’”

That persistence was also evident in November, when Johnston seniors lobbied the campaigns to give them free tickets to the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, a highly anticipated Democratic party fund-raiser held in Des Moines. Mr. Shackett secured some of the tickets; students rustled a few on their own.

About 40 of his students attended the fund-raiser, where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York was the featured speaker. Johnston High’s contingent was originally seated in the balcony, but the students were able to finagle their way to the floor, where several of them met the former first lady.

One senior, Laura L. Stoeker, admits to approaching the event with misgivings; she counts herself as a Republican. But Mr. Shackett, who couldn’t care less which candidate his students choose to support, helped convince her she’d be a more informed voter by listening to the other side.

“I wanted to learn about these other candidates, because they could potentially be leading me next year,” Ms. Stoeker said. “I learned a lot of about the Democratic Party and their stances on issues. ... I won’t be an ignorant voter.”

Tough Constituency

Phone calls and fund- raisers aside, Mr. Shackett’s civic lessons can also be very direct. The teacher spends class time outlining what students can expect if they attend caucuses, and how Iowa’s political process differs from other states.’

But as far as political seminars go, it’s hard to beat one delivered directly by a candidate. Not only did students hear from Mr. Dean; he carried breaking news with him. The candidate arrived not long after stirring controversy by stating his desire to appeal to “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.”

A Johnston High student called him on it: What had Mr. Dean meant by the remark? The former governor told them his point was that Democrats needed to attract the blue-collar, white Southerners who have been voting Republican in presidential elections—and convince those voters that the GOP had not helped them.

“I thought his response was awesome,” Mr. Goerdt said. “It’s kind of disappointing [when] all you hear now ... [are] your 10- second clips about it on the news.”

His Republican-leaning classmate, Ms. Stoeker, was less impressed with Mr. Dean’s stances on issues such as his opposition to the war in Iraq. But she credited him with not running from those views.

“Before he came to speak,” she said, “I couldn’t sit and talk to you about [his positions], because I hadn’t researched enough.”

The latest polls have shown Mr. Dean and U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri jostling for top position among Iowa caucus-goers. Since the Vermonter’s school stop, some students said they have witnessed an outbreak of pro-Dean gear in Johnston High’s hallways: stickers on notebooks, pins on lapels. Grassroots politics, it seems, has taken hold.

If the candidates “really care about students, they’d be happy to share their ideas with us,” said senior Megan Beck, 17. She admits it took her a while to arrive at that conclusion.

“I always thought, ‘Nothing ever happens in Iowa, nothing ever happens in Iowa,’” Ms. Beck said. “But something does happen in Iowa. Every four years.”


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