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Inside Politics

Emerson students talk private contributions

By Cynthia Roy
Special to CNN

Cynthia Roy
College correspondent Cynthia Roy stands outside Emerson's Cutler Majestic Theater, one of Boston's most famous playhouses.

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Campus Vibe
Emerson College
Fund Raising

Editor's note: Campus Vibe is a feature that provides student perspectives on the 2004 election from selected colleges across the United States. This week's contributor is Cynthia Roy, editor in chief at The Berkeley Beacon, the independent student newspaper at Emerson College. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN, its affiliates or the Emerson College.

BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Emily Garr has spent her share of hours in political campaigns.

If she's not volunteering to get members of the Boston City Council re-elected, the Emerson College junior is finding other ways to use her time and energy to contribute to the democratic process.

This year, Garr is trying something new.

Motivated by the grassroots organizing that has catapulted former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean to the top of the polls, Garr is joining the ranks of college students across the nation who are making their first financial donation to a political campaign.

"This is the first year I have really thought about it," Garr said. "I am really inspired by what Dean is doing, and like many students, I am willing to give $10 or $20 for the cause."

Unlike President Bush and some of the other Democratic candidates who rely on high-priced fund-raisers, the Dean campaign counts on a larger group of individuals with less money.

In the last quarter, Dean raised $14.8 million, collecting an average donation of $73.69 from 168,000 Americans, according to the Federal Elections Commission.

Dean's use of the Internet for fund raising particularly appeals to younger voters.

But Dean is not the only candidate reaching out to college-aged voters online.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' Web site features "Students 4 Victory, Students for Edwards," a Web page dedicated to his proposed policies on education, health care and jobs.

Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt features a similar page on his site, while former Gen. Wesley Clark and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry use student-created sites to attract young voters.

All of the major candidates' student sites link to donations pages, where suggested amounts range from $25 to $2,000.

Eddie Jones, an Emerson senior, decided to contribute to the Dean campaign after he received a campaign e-mail asking for his help.

"I got the e-mail, and I felt obligated to respond," Jones, also a first time contributor, said. "I didn't even have 20 bucks in cash, but I had a credit card."

While he realizes his donation was too small to afford him the perks bigger donors get, Jones sees his contribution as a way of getting results, not recognition.

"I don't expect Dean to invite me to fund-raisers or put me in his Cabinet, but the way to get money is to get people and then hold on to those people who will end up voting for him," Jones said.

Small contributions, big impact

Garr and Jones are not the only students on Emerson's campus looking to change the way young voters participate in presidential politics.

Senior Crystal Benton is a campus coordinator for the Democracy Matters Institute, a national organization geared toward giving young people the power to change the way private money is used in campaigning. She believes that, despite Dean's decision to opt out of public financing (which limits the amount of money he can collect from donors), his campaign is embarking on a new era in American politics.

"It's true that a $2,000 contribution is a bigger microphone than a $25 one, but I think more people are getting involved through the smaller contributions," she said. "If the candidates realize that they have a lot of people who will give the small amounts, they may eventually stop relying on the bigger donations."

Benton organized an event earlier this month at Emerson, hoping to initiate a dialogue between students about how they can get involved in politics despite the lack of funds college students are notorious for.

"We are saying to candidates, 'If you have a message we believe in, we don't really have any money, but here's 20 bucks. We support you," Benton said.

It's that unified response to candidates that Democracy Matters Executive Director Joan Mandle hopes will eventually change the attitude of candidates who overlook younger voters. Mandle believes there are two things that get the candidates' attention: money and people power.

"What we have to do is organize and put pressure on our legislators to change the way money influence politics," she said. "They won't listen to you as an individual with no money, but as a group, they can't ignore you."

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