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April 19, 2014

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Blood, sweat and ideals: Young Las Vegans reflect on their first campaign in the trenches

Image

Courtesy Dante Dumas

Dante Dumas, center, supports the Obama campaign with fellow UNLV students on campus.

Over the past few months, thousands of young Nevadans have gotten their first taste of politics in the trenches as volunteers for presidential campaigns: They’ve manned the phones, knocked on doors and registered voters -- and some aren’t even old enough to vote themselves.

As this heated, divisive election season draws to a close, have the once starry-eyed optimists emerged inspired and invigorated, or are they burned out and disillusioned by political strife?

Below, a new generation of political activists share what they learned about politics in the wake of the 2012 presidential election:

    • Democratic campaign volunteer Samantha Picazo.

      Samantha Picazo, 19

      After three months of emotional highs and lows in the campaign field, Samantha Picazo has learned a thing or two about tenacity.

      The 70 to 80 hours a week Picazo spent canvassing this summer was something of a reality check; the 19-year-old College of Southern Nevada student learned a great deal more than the policy basics she signed up for.

      “It baffled me how people will say or believe in something without backing it up or doing research. We don’t have to agree, but if you’re gonna stand behind something, it should at least be substantiated,” she says of her experiencing canvassing.

      Picazo spent days returning home depressed, frustrated and cynical about what she viewed as people’s unwillingness to listen or change. “I didn’t want to deal with it. There was a day or two I didn’t want to come back because I was so upset.”

      It wasn’t until Picazo overcame her shyness and turned to older, more experienced volunteers for guidance that her attitude changed. Many had volunteered with past presidential campaigns and shared their experiences of successfully changing others’ views.

      She says their conversations reassured her of how far simply talking to others can get you. Those discussions also helped Picazo put her education in perspective and, for the first time, think about her life and goals after college.

      “Before, I was going to school to go to school. I feel like I’ve been in school forever, I wasn’t going for a reason,” she says.

      That changed the night before her first presidential rally, when she met other volunteers who spoke about where their studies have taken them in their careers and travels.

      “It made me realize that I want to be like that, that I can have those opportunities too,” she says.

      Though Picazo is still undecided about her studies, she’s considering journalism thanks to her experiences with research and communication during the campaign.

      “This has gotten me to think about what I really like and what I’ll be doing in three or four years. I’m glad I have that now, and that I can see how the president’s policies support that.”

    • Dorian Achaval, 17

      Dorian Achaval may be a year shy of voting age, but that hasn’t stopped him from devoting his free time after school to knocking on doors and making phone calls in support of Mitt Romney.

      “I can’t vote, so this is sort of my way of making sure others do it for me,” the Sierra Vista High School senior says with a laugh.

      Achaval, who shares his parents’ Republican leanings, has been passively interested in politics since his freshman year but began volunteering in August at the suggestion of some of his Republican classmates.

      After watching his family’s chiropractic business suffer under the economy, he saw getting involved in Romney’s campaign as a way to help change the situation. What started as a fun, social experience ended with him hooked on getting out the vote.

      “Every time I take a look at the polls and see Romney rising, I say to myself, ‘Wow, we’re actually making a difference here, we’re getting people informed, getting them out there,” he says. “That feeling of being able to stand for something and fighting is what I love the most.

      The experience also has impacted his political biases. Though he remains a staunch Republican, his conversations with Democrats and undecided voters have helped him put a face to different political perspectives.

      “It’s one thing to hear about the Democrats on CNN, it’s another to meet them face-to-face on their doorstep,” he says. “Some of the phone calls are really interesting, some are really brief, and it’s opened a new world for me, outside what my own family sees in politics as well as others. I’ve never had this kind of insight before. I really do enjoy it.”

      Achaval says that before volunteering, he had a more black-and-white perception of politics that would incline him to dismiss someone with differing views as a “crazy liberal.” He says he’s since come to understand the nuances of the political spectrum and to respect other’s views and how different backgrounds inform them.

      “How am I going to be exacting change if I’m going to be like many others not respecting the other side? I mean what change is that going to make, what good is that gonna do?” he says.

      His most frustrating moments in the field weren’t with avid Obama supporters but with apathetic voters and those who couldn’t support their views. That’s why, in the final days of the campaign, Achaval says politics has come to mean less to him about being right than about being informed. He says he wants to use his experience volunteering to inspire and set an example for other young people to become politically active.

      “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, I just want people to be informed,” he says. “That’s what’s better for the country.”

    • Candice Morris, left, poses with fellow UNLV students and Obama campaign volunteers Dante Dumas and Meghan Garibay after casting their 2012 general election ballots.

      Candice Morris, 28

      Tuesday won’t be the first presidential election Candice Morris has voted in, but it will be the first time she hasn’t felt reluctant to voice her views as a Democrat.

      “I was raised to believe that Christian faith and being liberal were mutually exclusive,” says the 28-year-old UNLV student of her conservative roots. Wary of backlash from her family and ambivalent about the impact of politics, Morris preferred to change the subject when conversation turned to the election -- that is, until she joined Students for Obama this summer.

      “Before, I saw politics as something abstract, not related to my daily life,” she says, explaining that her vote for Obama in 2008 was one rooted in “good conscience” rather than an understanding of policy.

      After spending 2 months and as long as 25 hours a week making phone calls, registering voters and knocking on the doors of strangers, Morris, who is studying early childhood education, says those face-to-face interactions helped her make the connection between national policies and the individual.

      “Seeing the number of voter registrations or commit-to-vote cards that you turn out in a shift makes you realize, OK, I do have an impact,” she says. “Just having that conversation with one person who wasn’t even interested in voting and now they’re committing to vote for all the things we believe in, like equality for all and health care for all, it does make a difference.”

      She says becoming well-versed in issues that affect her as a student and her future career -- such as student loan policy and early childhood education policy -- has empowered her as an individual and a citizen.

      “Working on the campaign has made me more courageous. I tend to be shy and not outspoken in general, but once I better understood the issues, I couldn’t be shy,” she says, adding that today her family and she have agreed to disagree.

      “I know I’m out representing the president, and that makes me want to do it better. Once this campaign ends, I’d love to go out and work on another campaign, definitely.”

    • Tommy Bonetti, 16

      Like several of his peers from Sierra Vista High School’s Teenage Republican Society, Bonetti joined the Romney campaign to encourage those who are of voting age to support his candidate of choice.

      A proud grin cracks his stoic demeanor as he recalls a favorite moment from the campaign -- persuading a Democrat to vote for Romney over the course of a phone conversation while his friends cheered him on in the background.

      “When do you see a 16-year-old convincing an adult to change their political views?” he says.

      Though his young age also has elicited condescension from voters, his time volunteering has taught him how empowering political activism can be. “I take the issues more seriously, I see how individuals can have an effect on how things turn out.”

      That’s much to the chagrin of Bonetti’s parents, who, as Democrats and Latinos, often butt heads with him about the 5 to 6 hours he spends after school each week at the Romney campaign office. Bonetti admits that volunteering as part of the minority of Latino Republicans has made him more cynical.

      “I feel like so many Latinos are Democrats just because they go along with what everyone else thinks,” he says. “It’s made me cynical about the simplicity of politics, like how easily people will believe something just because they heard it on an ad on TV.”

      While Bonetti is grateful for his experience volunteering, his commitment to future campaigns depends on the outcome of the election.

      “I’d be really disappointed if Mitt Romney doesn’t win. I’ll feel like all those hours were wasted, like it wasn’t worth it,” he says. “But who knows about the next election. I’m young. My views might change.”

    • Dante Dumas, center, supports the Obama campaign with fellow UNLV students on campus.

      Dante Dumas, 24

      Though Dumas has been volunteering with Students for Obama for 3 months, it wasn’t until about 3 weeks ago, at a student really on UNLV’s campus, that the meaning of the election truly dawned on him.

      “That was when the epiphany came to me -- that I really matter. For the next 4 years, this is my future,” he says.

      Walking around and talking to his fellow students, Dumas, a second-year biology major, realized that their concerns are the same as his:

      “Will I have a job after college? How will I be able to afford school? I saw how many different aspects of their lives will be impacted by their vote and who’s in office,” he says. “It put a face to the issues.”

      Dumas, who spends as long as 40 hours a week volunteering, says he was politically ambivalent before signing up to volunteer. While he expected to gain a cut-and-dry understanding of politics from the experience, the lesson he’s walked away with has been more about personal empowerment.

      “I understand how even if you think you don’t have a voice, you have a voice,” he says, recalling the first time he persuaded a politically apathetic UNLV student to register to vote.

      "I thought, I got one person. Well, what if I get a 50? 100? That could decide an election. It gave me faith in politics and drove me to start helping out with the campaign even more.”

      Though Dumas has no plans to pursue a career in politics -- he’s busy studying to be a physician’s assistant -- he looks forward to volunteering in the next campaign, regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.

      “Will I be devastated if Obama doesn’t win? Yes. But it just means we’ll need to work harder next time,” he says.

    • UNLV student Elizabeth Pelkowski, 21, poses with a Mitt Romney campaign sign while registering voters on campus.

      Lizz Pelkowski, 21

      As a 21-year-old woman, Lizz Pelkowski has endured her fair share of backlash for supporting Mitt Romney.

      “I have gotten multiple comments as to why I’m voting for Romney, multiple comments as to why I’m not educated, because of the women’s rights stuff,” says the third-year UNLV student.

      “I’ve gotten doors slammed at me, I’ve gotten called ... not so nice words. I was at the grocery store wearing my Romney shirt, and I got called, ‘Well look at this wealthy stuck-up b*tch.’”

      While the comments frustrate Pelkowski, she’s remained undeterred in getting out her message. Having volunteering since the summer in her native Colorado and Las Vegas, Pelkowski is more interested in talking to voters face-to-face than hiding from the hecklers.

      “I’m very voiced about my opinions, I don’t like being sheltered. I feel like if I did anything else, I wouldn’t feel like I’m getting my point across,” she says. “At the end of the day, I don’t want to think that there’s more that I could’ve done.”

      This isn’t Pelkowski’s first experience with a campaign -- she supported John McCain in 2008 -- but it does mark the first time she’ll conclude her volunteer work by casting a ballot.

      “I don’t know if it’s because I’m voting, but I feel like this election just means so much more. America right now has a lot to gain or a lot to lose. What could potentially happen in the future means so much more this time,” she says.

      Like other volunteers, Pelkowski says her face-to-face discussions with Las Vegans has given extra meaning to issues like unemployment for her.

      “I’ve taken my American history classes and [political science]. You can learn a lot in a textbook, but it’s when you talk to people and see their expressions that you start to really understand,” she says.

    Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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    1. Glad to see them getting involved.

      Also glad to see they understand one of the biggest problems we have today. People getting informed of facts. There is a great lack of that in this country.

      Hopefully they will hang in there and stick with it.