Dispatches from Denver, Day 1

The Democratic National Convention kicks off, with a platform adopted and youth delegates out in force.
August 26, 2008

Delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Denver voted to adopt the report of the platform committee Monday. Among the higher education-related components of the 2008 platform: the creation of a new $4,000 American Opportunity Tax Credit that students would receive in exchange for community service, and a long-called-for simplification of the financial aid process. “We will enable families to apply for financial aid simply by checking a box on their tax form,” the Democratic platform reads.

On research, the platform criticizes "this Administration's hostility to science," and proposes doubling federal funding for basic research, ending the ban on using federal monies for embryonic stem cell research, and making the Research and Development Tax Credit, which encourages companies to sponsor academic research, permanent. “We will ensure that our patent laws protect legitimate rights while not stifling innovation and creativity. We will end the Bush Administration’s war on science, restore scientific integrity, and return to evidence-based decision making,” the document states.

The platform also includes a focus on community colleges and training programs, pledging to invest in short-term training and technical certifications for unemployed and underemployed individuals so they can move into emerging industries, and to “reward successful community colleges with grants so they can continue their good work.” It includes a statement of recognition of the “special value and importance” of historically black colleges and universities and other minority serving institutions. On the flip side, it states a need to “reform the schools of education.”

And, on affirmative action, it affirms support for it, including in federal contracting and higher education, specifically. (Barack Obama elsewhere has advocated that class should also play a role, and has said that his own daughters, for instance, should be treated as advantaged).

This year’s platform development process included 1,600 hearings, attended by 30,000 people nationwide, according to the platform committee’s co-chairs -- who spoke on the floor of Denver’s Pepsi Center Monday.

The Youth Delegation

Photo: Elizabeth Redden

Kate Epstein, Bowdoin College student and Clinton delegate.

Downtown Denver campuses may be closed this week, but college students are still easy to come by. They're sorting through trash behind the scenes on the one hand and, on the other, occupying prized spots on the Democratic convention floor, where young people make up 16 percent of the convention delegates, up from 11 percent in 2004 and 9 percent in 2000, according to the Young Voter PAC and DNC Youth Council.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of youth delegates -- 59 percent -- are here for Barack Obama. Of the 631 total youth delegates, 35 percent are pledged to Sen. Hillary Clinton -- including Kate Epstein, a junior at Bowdoin College elected as an at-large delegate for the state of Maine. Clinton’s delegates will meet with the senator on Wednesday to learn if she’ll be releasing her delegates to vote for Obama (as is expected). Said Epstein: “This is the end of the primary season and I think it’s fine to represent the 18 million votes she won around the country.”

Dirty Hands

Meanwhile, more than 400 volunteers from Colorado State University, most of them students, are boarding biodiesel-fueled buses from Fort Collins to Denver this week to separate the recyclables from the trash.

“From the very beginning, we have advertised it as getting your hands dirty at the DNC,” said Tonie Miyamoto, director of communications for housing and dining services at Colorado State. “It’s definitely behind the scenes. It’s not a glamorous job, but it’s an important job.”

Photo: Elizabeth Redden

Disposables at the DNC

There's already a whole green-shirted army monitoring what waste goes where within the convention venues. In walking to the trash can, better known here as the "resource recovery station," in the Colorado Convention Center Monday morning, this still bleary-eyed reporter was reminded that her plastic coffee cup top belonged in the landfill-bound bin, while, more happily, the paper cup itself was compost-able. In contrast to this visible on-site intervention, the Colorado State volunteers function invisibly -- as the “last set of eyes," double checking that, as they leave the premises, the recycling streams aren’t contaminated with too much waste (which could render them un-recyclable).

This reporter wanted to join the Colorado State students as they sorted through trash behind the behind-the-scenes. But apparently she was just one of too many journalists dreaming of joining in and digging into mounds of thousands of people’s trash.

Due to too many requests from news media seeking the same immersive reporting opportunity, a DNC spokesman said Monday they were making the recycling sorting area off-limits to press.

College Democrats at the Convention

Photo: Elizabeth Redden

Outgoing College Democrats President Lauren Wolfe.

On a very different note (because, really, how else do you transition out of that one?), also here in force in Denver are the College Democrats of America. The organization's leaders say that more than 500 College Democrats gathered in Denver starting on Friday for their own convention, which is continuing but being largely subsumed into the national festivities this week.

“The youth movement really couldn’t be much stronger at this point,” Lauren Wolfe, a third-year law student at the University of Detroit Mercy, said as she steps down this week as president of the College Democrats of America. The youth vote increased in the 2004 and 2006 elections both, and tripled in the Iowa caucuses this January. “That was astronomical.”

“We’re all in the campaign mindset,” said Katie Naranjo, the incoming president for the College Democrats and a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’re really seeing the students, especially the seniors, getting more and more concerned about this election,” she said -- especially on issues surrounding jobs and the economy and college loans and costs.

Photo: Elizabeth Redden

Incoming College Democrats President Katie Naranjo.

“Will I have health care, will I be able to afford to pay off my college loans?” asked Wolfe. “I really want to get a job in Michigan when I graduate with health care.”

In training on Saturday, the College Democrats focused on the basics: fund raising and increasing on-campus membership, for instance, as well as voter protection issues -- responding to concerns, Wolfe said, about the impact of more restrictive voter identification laws on young voters.

In May, the Student Public Interest Research Group’s New Voters Project issued reports of young Indiana primary voters turned away for identification reasons. The U.S. Supreme Court had just recently rejected a challenge to an Indiana law requiring voters to present a government-issued photo ID at the polling place.

ID-ing the Voter Laws

On these matters, the National Democratic Law Students Council has been working with 13 campuses in 10 states to research voter registration and identification laws, and create state-by-state guides that the College Democrats can use for educational purposes.

“Voting laws are most challenging to those who are new to voting or have moved a lot,” said Gena M. Miller Shelton, legal research director for the council and a third-year law student at Ohio State University. “One of the biggest concerns we’ve heard is because they vary so much from state to state, students can’t find a centralized resource for what they are.”

Republicans in Denver: Expecting

Of course, College Democrats aren't the only college students around. “One of the few in town, I think, this week,” Atlantis Richter said of her Republican status. A sophomore at Ohio Northern University, Richter, a marketing major, opted to study at the Democratic convention rather than the Republicans’ -- figuring that when she didn’t agree with what she was listening to, she’d listen harder. “I thought it would be a better learning experience for me to be someplace I was not as comfortable.”

Richter, who's studying through a program offered by the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, said that the only time she’s felt alienated as a Republican so far in Denver was when she heard the party chairman Howard Dean speak. But Richter, a married, nontraditional student, is getting some flak from her family back home.

She’s six months pregnant with a girl. Her husband tells her, she said, that “If our daughter turns out to be a Democrat, I’m going to blame you.”

More from the Democratic National Convention, including more about academic activities surrounding the events, will be in Inside Higher Ed tomorrow.


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