Town and Gown Relations: William or Mary for city council?

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January 22, 2008

5:50 PM

__Students can now vote in high numbers, but none are yet running for office__

With Williamsburg voter registrar-student tensions finally settled for the time being, a perception seems to be gaining strength on campus and in the community that students could wield significant influence in the May 6 city council election.

p. “Students need to realize the incredible opportunity of this election,” Gary Shelly, a Williamsburg landlord and local guru of student rights issues, said. “They can initiate a real change in the community, but only if they get out and vote on Election Day.”

p. New Registrar Winifred Sowder has eased student-focused voting restrictions to levels unseen since 2004, when former Registrar R.W. Davis first denied students the right to vote in Williamsburg. After facing a series of significant and sometimes bizarre obstacles to initiate student voting by Davis and next by former Registrar Dave Andrews over the course of the next few years, Sowder’s appointment has mobilized campus political leaders who want student voices to be heard at a community-wide level.

p. “The Student Assembly has allocated a large sum to politicizing and increasing student awareness on the campus in the run up to the election,” said SA President Zach Pilchen.

p. Student Assembly plans for the spring semester include a large get-out-the-vote campaign and hosting a debate for City Council candidates. Pilchen stressed, however, that the SA’s role did not include endorsing a specific candidate.

p. “That’s not going to be the goal of this campaign. Legally, the SA can’t even give money to the Young Democrats or Republicans, so endorsing candidates isn’t a possibility, nor would it be fair. Our goal is to create a student voting bloc which will force the candidates to recognize students as an integral part of this community,” said Pilchen. “We’ve already seen the city pursuing more student-friendly policies in the last few months, and this can only increase that awareness.”

p. Despite this optimism from some student leaders, others question the degree to which students will affect the election’s outcome. A primary concern is the lack of any declared candidates who haven’t previously served on the Council and who would, presumably, maintain the status quo. At the moment, only Clyde Haulman, vice-mayor and economics professor at the College, and Councilman Paul Frieling, both of whom are incumbents, have publicly expressed their intentions of running for reelection.

p. Mickey Chohany, who won the highest percentage of voters in 2004, has announced his decision not to pursue another term of office. His decision presently leaves one spot on the City Council open for candidates planning to declare their candidacies in the coming weeks and months.

p. Recent activities, along with past history, have fueled speculation that a student will run for the office this year. Students contested City Council positions in each of the last two election cycles with David Sievers ’08 receiving 713 votes, just 156 shy of the total needed to assume office, in 2006. Matt Beato ’09, who already serves on the Colonial District’s Soil and Water Conservation Board, which includes Williamsburg, has been among the names floated as potential candidates. Pilchen, who won the SA presidential election last spring, has adamantly denied rumors that he will run for office.

p. If a student does run for office, they will be faced with significant obstacles, not the least of which is time constraints.

p. “The students who have run in recent years for office took the semester off and really focused three months of their lives on the campaign,” said Haulman. “They made really monumental efforts, and, while I encourage students to vote and to run, I haven’t heard yet of any students doing that this time around.”

p. Another issue which could affect the election is student turnout. While the College campus teems with political activity and the SA hopes to significantly increase political participation, the students still represent an age group with a very poor record of showing up to elections nationwide. Voting rights advocates are also concerned that the elections take place during final exams, which may negatively affect student voter turnout considering the high workload.

p. Despite this, many hold out hope. Over 700 students have already registered to vote in the city — a significant increase over the 70-odd students who came out for Sievers in 2006. Pilchen, though tightlipped, expressed an optimism that a student candidate may emerge.

p. “I think you may hear something, maybe in the next month or so,” he said, pointedly, before quickly adding, “But I don’t know anything.”

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