Student-run PAC impacting city politics

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October 20, 2009

2:53 AM

A new student advocacy group at the College of William and Mary is gaining clout with community leaders and eclipsing other student organizations in influence.

Since June 2008, the Students for a Better Williamsburg Political Action Committee has increased its involvement in affairs between the College and the City of Williamsburg. Formed by Michael Douglass ’11 and Josh Karp ’11, SBW presents itself as a small, focused and dedicated promoter of student issues in the city.

“Students for a Better Williamsburg is a non-profit organization dedicated towards achieving better student representation and also working for a Williamsburg that treats students as equals with as much say as everyone else,” Karp said.

According to Douglass, the idea for SBW came from the end of Matt Beato’s ’09 unsuccessful campaign for city council representative.

“We didn’t have enough time to raise money so that we could have all the printing costs covered [and] so that we could run a truly effective campaign,” Douglass said. “We decided to go out and create a group that would keep that information — what we learned on the Beato campaign — keep the contacts, make new contacts and collect information for the next student candidate.”

To achieve the ultimate goal of electing a student to the city council, SBW receives money from a nationwide network of contacts. Since its founding, the organization has raised over $3,000 for future campaigns and received in-kind donations for its local events.

“Students, alumni, parents have all donated,” Douglass said. “We’ve also gotten some hall council money, since they help co-sponsor events.”

Karp said that the majority of donations were small-dollar donations from students and recent graduates of the College.

“The majority of our monetary donations come from students at William and Mary, but also students at other colleges we’ve talked to [or] friends of ours,” Karp said.

Some contributions have come from more high-profile donors. One such contributor was former College President Gene Nichol.

“I spoke with former President Nichol on the phone in June about this idea that I had about SBW and asked him for advice,” Douglass said. “I asked if there were some way that he could show that he was behind it, and he said ‘How about if I sent you a check?’ He sent us $250 and a very nice letter.”

Nichol’s contribution is currently the largest single donation to SBW by an individual or group. As of June 30, the organization has raised $3,500.

While SBW is raising money and growing in influence, its regular membership remains small.

Two-hundred and ten people are registered on the organization’s listserv, and meetings average between eight and 15 people.

“On a really good day, we can get about 13 [people to our meetings],” Douglass said.

The small size of the group has led some to ask whether SBW is an accurate representation of student opinions at the College. Karp and Douglass agreed that the organization’s small size could actually increase its ability to advocate for students.

“[An organization like] the Student Assembly has a lot to do … they do well with what they can do,” Karp said. “We have a much more focused approach … We’re able to build relationships.”

As a smaller organization, SBW members are able to concentrate on issues that students may be too busy to closely examine.

“The city council says that to be a full member of the community, you have to know about all these peripheral issues,” Douglass said.

One of these community concerns was to find additional water sources to meet Williamsburg’s growing needs.

“The water issue was huge,” Karp said “[But] students couldn’t care less. … [City council member Judy] Knudson said that ‘the only thing people are talking about is water right now,’ so when students call in wanting to talk about housing, it seems like it’s coming out of left field.”

SBW’s advocacy often overlaps with similar efforts by College-affiliated, student-elected organizations like the SA.

Some have suggested that a multitude of student advocacy groups would diminish the legitimacy of student positions or create conflict between organizations.

Douglass said that, while a unified student voice would be beneficial, it is impossible to create. Ultimately, multiple student voices do not hamper the underlying goals of student groups.

“We have a fairly good relationship with the Student Assembly,” Douglass said. “We know them, they know us. We’re not going to agree all the time, but at the end of the day, we’re working for the same thing.”

The organization has five main goals for town-gown relations: better housing, public transportation, business opportunities, smart growth and building community.

SBW has not posted many specific ideas to achieve these goals on their website, sbwpac.net.

Possible resolutions to problems, especially the housing issue, have already been generated through conversations with city officials.

Re-zoning local hotels to accommodate students, support for the College’s proposed housing development near Wawa and changing policies to allow more residents to live in Ludwell Apartments have been suggested as potential remedies.

Karp and Douglass said that these and other solutions to community issues could only come from dialogues with city officials.

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