By Jonathan Smith, Editor in Chief
Debate ended on the floor of the U.S. Congress, and Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, left the chamber frustrated with the discussion over provisions of a tax bill.
After making his way back to his Washington, D.C., office, he sat down to return a call from a reporter. The reporter, unaware of the debate that had just taken place, asked what issues in the upcoming congressional election should be important to students.
“I think one of the big ones is the one that we just had a vote on just a few minutes ago up here, and that’s whether we’re going to continue an economic program that has given us the largest deficits in the history of our country that students at Abilene Christian University are going to have to work and pay taxes on to pay the interest on this debt the rest of their lives,” Stenholm said, without hesitation. “I think the deficit spending we’re going through now is going to be a big issue for young people.”
At least he hopes students are concerned. Stenholm knows that making the 19th Congressional District race between himself and Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, important to students and young voters is difficult.
“The toughest challenge is to try to make this race relevant-having the issues for the future of the students become so relevant in their minds that they choose to vote,” Stenholm said. “We candidates are constantly striving for that magic bullet-that something that will cause young people to say, ‘Yeah, I’m interested; I want to be part of the system.'”
Not for several terms has more money and effort been put into winning a congressional race in Abilene, which is now paired in District 19 with Lubbock. According to an Abilene Reporter-News article last week, Stenholm had spent $1.9 million on his campaign to Neugebauer’s $1.7 million. Redistricting efforts in 2003 pitted two incumbents against each other: Stenholm, a congressional veteran of more than 25 years, and Neugebauer, sworn into Congress in June 2003.
Neugebauer signs can be seen in many yards in Abilene, a traditional Republican stronghold, which Stenholm has represented since 1979. Still, many Republicans have supported Stenholm, even though he is a Democrat. Originally from Ericksdahl, near Stamford, Stenholm now lives in Abilene. His hometown was sliced out of the district during redistricting.
Despite the importance of the race, Stenholm said all candidates struggle with connecting with young voters enough to bring them to the polls. Neugebauer left requests for an interview unanswered.
Making this race relevant
Stenholm said last year’s redistricting efforts in Texas should make young voters look at their leaders and how they run the government.
In 2003, Republicans in the Texas Legislature redrew the lines so that more Republican congressmen will likely be elected. The new map split the old 17th District, which included Abilene and San Angelo, and paired Abilene with Lubbock. At just under 200,000 people, Lubbock is the largest city in the new 19th District-about 85,000 more than Abilene.
The controversial redistricting plan has come under attack even last week when the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case regarding the legality of the effort to redraw the district lines.
“That should get the attention of young people in a way that says, ‘What’s going on in our government?’ ‘Who are our leaders?’ ‘What are they doing?’ and not just paying attention to the 20-second TV commercials that come on and show that I’m a good man, and I’ve done this and I’ve done that and I believe in this.”
For Stenholm, taxes and spending were the first things that came to mind when asked what young voters should care about in the election.
“I think that we ought to pay for [the debt] and not continue to dig the deficit hole even deeper,” Stenholm said. “[Congress] can borrow on it from your generation’s future, and I differ with that. I think that’s a political issue and certainly one that separates me and my opponent in this race.”
Other than taxes, Stenholm said he believes young voters should consider the war on terror and in Iraq.
“It’s pretty tough going right now in Iraq, but we’re there now, and losing is not an option,” Stenholm said. “We have to put together a game plan that ultimately helps the Iraqi people win their war against terrorism so that they can have free and fair elections, and they can determine their future.”
Although President George W. Bush said during the debates that there would never be a military draft under his command, Stenholm said more young voters ask about that possibility than many other issues. Dr. Mel Hailey, chair of the Political Science Department, said that although no direct draft exists, other issues remain.
“There are others who say that the military, particularly the [National] Guard, is being stretched pretty thin right now,” Hailey said. “Some of the Guard members are saying, ‘Excuse me, I thought we were supposed to be done now.’ So there could be pressure building up; one never knows.”
Hailey also said how each candidate views Dyess Air Force Base should be an important factor for voters. Both candidates have said they support Dyess, which brings money and jobs to the Abilene economy, Hailey said.
“Every dollar that comes in to Dyess is multiplied in the community,” Hailey said. “Very directly that affects the quality of life for every university student here in town.”
Regardless of the importance of the issues, candidates know the record of voter apathy among young people with which they must contend.
Kristi Allyn, Taylor County elections administrator, said she has not seen any more interest in registering to vote for this election compared to other years during a presidential campaign. Early voting numbers so far have increased, but she said she did not know if that was because of the congressional race.
Hailey said he has seen no indication that students on campus have an increased awareness about this congressional election.
“Learning about the individual characteristics of particular candidates takes time, and college students have this perception that we are so busy with so many other things that this is just one more thing on my plate.”
Without much knowledge about Stenholm and Neugebauer and where they stand on issues, Hailey said young voters are likely to vote using different criteria.
“My guess is that a lot of students will vote party rather than actually taking a look at particular characteristics of each congressman,” Hailey said.
Hailey also said many students simply do not think about some of the issues important in a congressional race, such as health care, prescription drugs and social security, until they leave college and find a job.
“You talk to students about prescription drugs, and their eyes glaze over, and they say, ‘But my mom and dad have my health insurance,'” Hailey said with a laugh. “When they get out of college they take a job, and they find out they’re working for an employer who does not provide health care insurance, then all of a sudden health care becomes a major issue. All of a sudden that person is hit between the eyes.”
Even students who might be politically aware could find it difficult to become knowledgeable about a congressional race after moving away from home to go to college in a new district.
“It’s hard when you’re a freshman who comes in, and you’re 18, and you’re away from home for the first time to jump right into the middle of a congressional race,” Hailey said.
Finding that magic bullet
As Stenholm said, many candidates struggle with discovering how to connect with young voters. Much of that burden Stenholm takes upon himself by talking to as many groups of young people and classes of students as possible, answering their questions. At some point though, Stenholm said he knows the vote is out of his hands.
“You talk about the issues that are out there, and you answer the questions about how you feel,” Stenholm said. “Then it’s up to them.”
To make sure young voters can make an informed decision about the race, Stenholm offers this advice:
“Pay attention. Take a good, hard look, and vote for the candidate that would do what you would do if you were in that position.”
To do that, Hailey said students should realize the civic duty they have and become informed about the candidates and issues.
“It’s not by mistake that the Constitution starts out, ‘We the people,'” Hailey said. “And it means that we the people have some responsibilities to do, and that means more than just voting for presidential electors.”