A recent get-together on Providence’s East Side had all the hallmarks of a successful house party: an eclectic throng of guests, a steady stream of lively banter, and the usual tendency of some of the visitors, scrounging for stray Heinekens, to gravitate toward the kitchen. But this wasn’t just the routine revelry of young adults. The November 18 gathering that attracted more than 200 people to Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline’s Elmgrove Avenue home marked the rebirth of an emerging force in state politics, the Rhode Island Young Democrats.
The benefit was so populous, in fact, that it was frequently difficult to move as the racially and ethnically diverse crowd of 20-and-30-something political activists rubbed shoulders with Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty, Attorney General Patrick Lynch, Secretary of State Matt Brown, a sprinkling of legislators and city councilors, and statewide candidates Elizabeth Roberts, Ralph Mollis, Guillaume de Ramel, and Frank Caprio. Paul Tencher, the 25-year-old president of the Young Democrats, called the outpouring "beyond my wildest dreams," and with a nod to the looming campaign season, he points to the latent power of an estimated 250,000 Rhode Islanders under the age of 36.
Not to be outdone, the Rhode Island Young Republicans are also showing fresh signs of life after a long period of inactivity. An April kickoff event brought more than 200 guests to the Crowne Plaza in Warwick, including Governor Donald L. Carcieri, US Senator Lincoln Chafee, Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey, and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. As part of their series of regular events, a Young Republicans’ holiday party this past Saturday, at the home of East Greenwich town councilor John McGurk, attracted scores of guests, as well as appearances by GOP Senate rivals Chafee and Laffey. And while organizing may still pose an uphill battle in a state where Republicans have been consigned to minority status since the 1930s, "I see a momentum that I’ve never seen before," says Mia A. Caetano, the 34-year-old chairwoman of the Young Republicans, who unsuccessfully ran for the General Assembly in her early 20s.
FROM APATHY TO ACTIVISM
Although young people have long been dismissed as the apathetic bystanders of American politics, activists like Caetano and Tencher could prove part of a generational shift toward renewed civic engagement. While the much-anticipated youth vote was widely described as a washout after the November 2004 election, almost half of Americans 18 to 24 actually took part — the highest percentage since the 1972 presidential election.
The youth surge contributed to sharply increased overall voter turnout in 2004, which reached its highest level since the 1968 presidential election, according to a report by Thomas E. Patterson, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement In An Age of Uncertainty (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002). While it remains to be seen whether this increased interest will continue, Patterson wrote, "Nearly five million more young adults voted in 2004 than had done so in 2000."
On a national level, increased voting by young people is widely attributed to concerns related to the war in Iraq. Nonpartisan groups representing such different elements of youth culture as MTV (the 15-year-old Rock the Vote campaign), hip-hop (the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network), and professional wrestling (the WWE’s Smackdown Your Vote!) worked to boost civic participation by young adults. And while many young Americans still cling to the belief that their vote is meaningless, partisan groups like the League of Independent Voters (www.indyvoter.org) hammered home the message of how George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore in 2000, for example, turned on a razor-thin margin of 537 votes in Florida.
In Rhode Island, the reinvigoration of long-dormant Young Democrat and Young Republican groups corresponds with the intensifying partisan warfare between the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and the more muscular insurgent Republicans led by Carcieri and Laffey. And if sufficiently motivated, young voters could play an outsized role in local elections in 2006 for US Senate, governor, and the legislature, where dissident Democrats and the GOP’s very modest gains in 2004 have complicated Speaker William J. Murphy’s efforts to consolidate his power.
When it comes to the high-stakes Senate primary between Chafee and Laffey, Pratik Chougule, a Brown sophomore who chairs the Rhode Island College Republican Federation, used an October op-ed in the Providence Journal to contend that a statewide corps of campus conservatives could tip the balance, particularly since only 30,000 voters participated in the last Republican primary. (In a letter to the editor, Brown senior Seth Magaziner, now the national council chair for the College Democrats of America, responded by dismissing as unsubstantiated "wishful thinking" Chougule’s assertion that the Ocean State is in the "early stages of a Republican revolution.")
Time will tell which of these college activists is closer to the mark. It’s already clear, though, that they represent a small, but growing number of young Rhode Islanders, long rapped as part of an apathetic generation that left politics and government in the classroom, who are taking up the mantle of civic engagement.
After joining David N. Cicilline’s 2002 Providence mayoral campaign as an early volunteer, Brown University sophomore Christopher Bizzacco moved up after about 18 months to become the future mayor’s campaign manager. Bizzacco, 24, who grew up in North Providence and helped to chart a successful school committee run by his mother when he was 14, now works at City Hall as Cicilline’s deputy chief of staff and is considered one of the mayor’s top advisers.
The young operative, who took 10 months off from Brown as his campaign responsibilities increased, cites his experience as a reflection of "a unique part about politics in Rhode Island. You really have an opportunity as a young person to be a [big] part of a campaign." Bizzacco, who is applying to law schools, remains unsure whether he wants to remain in politics and government. "The benefit of being young is not knowing," he says with a touch of philosophy. "There’s a tipping point [in determining a career] — I’m not sure where that it is." Still, it seems likely that the high-level experience he gained at such an early age will help him in the future.
Bizzacco is one of a number of young up-and-comers in the Rhode Island Democratic Party. Paul Tencher, the 25-year-old West Warwick native who was elected in September as president of the Young Democrats, has built a similarly impressive resume. A veteran of Democratic campaigns in New Jersey, Tencher, currently the press secretary for Secretary of State Matt Brown, will start a new job in January, managing state Senator Elizabeth Roberts’s bid to become lieutenant governor.
The board of the Young Democrats is stocked with political talent, ranging from treasurer Meghan McBurney, the daughter of state Senator John F. McBurney (D-Pawtucket), and diversity director Julian Dash, who was recognized by the Phoenix as a Local Hero this year for his efforts in promoting affordable housing and civic engagement, to multi-tasking political director Matthew Jerzyk, a law student at Roger Williams University, an organizer for Service Employees International Union, District 1199, and the guiding force behind www.rifuture.org, one of the best and best-read political blogs in the state. In the General Assembly, freshman Representative Edwin R. Pacheco (D-Burrillville), who was elected last year at age 23, best exemplifies the youth trend.
On the GOP side, the charge to build youthful involvement is being led by Mia Caetano, the genial and articulate 34-year-old chairwoman of the Young Republicans, who describes herself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate. A Warwick native, Caetano says her father instilled her with an appreciation for reform, and she served as student body president at Union College before unsuccessfully running against then-Representative Russell Bramley (D-Warwick) in 1994. After practicing law in Boston for six years, she returned to Rhode Island two years ago and was eager to take up the leadership of the Young Republicans. In touting the group, Caetano, who works as an account executive for Esquire Deposition Services, says, "We’re the new face of the party and we’re the future of the party."
The Young Republicans’ board is rounded out by vice chairman John McGurk, vice president of the East Greenwich Town Council; treasurer David Fortier; secretary Jared Rogers, and directors Scott Cassidy; Adam Compton, a former executive director of the state Republican Party; and Andrew Berg, assistant executive director of the state GOP. Caetano cites David Shein, Sean Gately, Melissa Withers, Matt Wojik, Cranston city councilor Allan Fung, and Giovanni Cicione, a lobbyist and lawyer at Adler Pollock & Sheehan, as additional stalwarts.
Both groups stage events and hold regular meetings, the Republicans on the last Wednesday on the month at the state GOP headquarters, and the Democrats at Patrick’s Pub in Providence. A parallel dynamic takes place on the college level. Networks established by Democratic and Republican students, which cross most of the campuses in Rhode Island, will shift from their national focus in 2004 to stimulating the vote and signing up volunteers for Rhode Island campaigns in 2005.
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Issue Date: December 9 - 15, 2005
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