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Peering into politics

After ten days in our nation's capital, I have a renewed faith in the future of this country and our political system.

After meeting young people from every corner of the United States and hob-nobbing with politicians, campaign staffers and pundits from every level and every sector of the political world, I can confidently say that there is hope for the future - but it must begin with us.

I participated in a course on campaign politics at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and it was an experience that taught me more than I could ever imagine.

Even before I got on the plane, the experience had already begun. The course cost just over $2,000 plus airfare and the miscellaneous expenditures that always seem to come with travel. Unlike the stereotype some may hold about Lake Oswegans, this wasn't something I could just take out of my mother's pocket.

My parents were extremely supportive, but I had to do my own fund-raising on this one, an experience I am extremely grateful for.

By reaching out to family, friends and the networks of the Oregon Bus Project and Stand for Children and all of their generous support I was able to raise the funds to travel across the country.

Here begins my journey.

On the first day of the course my instructor, Shayna Englin, asked the class 'Why do you think people are involved in politics?' Many students painted an extremely grim picture by regaling the room with tales of massive egos, corruption and greed.

As a campaign manager, Englin was shocked that this was the opinion held by so many. From this day on, the course took a dual mission. Each speaker not only taught us the ins and outs of everything from polling to fieldwork and from campaign ethics to fundraising, but also provided insight about why it's all so important and why they are involved.

The most insightful and revealing viewpoints came from the electeds themselves, including Delegate David Englin of the Virginia House of Delegates (the same as our House of Representatives).

He explained that he wasn't in it for the fame, because for most politicians there really isn't any (apparently I'm the only one who gets giggly at the prospect of meeting John Kitzhaber). It couldn't be for the money, as their salaries are not especially high.

And, while one must have an ego of some size to go through a campaign, the whole job is about public service. Englin and many like him are in this game because they want to make the world a better place.

I wondered why so many of us have such a grim picture of the government as an institution. When I see young people in politics, I see idealists who want to work hard for real change. When I think of those who represent me, from Richard Devlin to Ron Wyden, I think of good guys who are out to help Oregonians.

But still, when many of us think of Congress as a whole, we envision corruption, greed, scandals and a disconnect with the public. Statistically, most people believe that the institution is awful, but that their representative is a good guy. How can this be? Where is the disconnection in this thinking?

It seems to me that there is no real disconnect between the individuals and the institution, just a few bad eggs giving the whole a bad name and making a functional government difficult. Our system isn't perfect, but it's still the best thing out there. If we want it to function better, we can't just complain. We must communicate with those who represent us. They have a tough job and they won't always make you happy, but they will listen. They aren't deaf, but they aren't psychic either.

A large portion of the course was a full-fledged mock election between a conservative Democrat, a progressive Democrat and a Republican candidate. I managed the campaign for the progressive Democratic candidate and enjoyed the learning, leadership and sleepless nights that came with it. In the end, we had a strong campaign and, in terms of raw votes collected in the form of signatures, endorsements and volunteers, we did very well compared to the other two teams. However, our score was calculated by dividing out raw votes by the number of staff members as a reflection of budgeting. As many of our staffers did not collect any votes, we got killed here.

I don't like to lose, but if I have to, I would like to at least learn something from the experience. With this in mind, I asked our instructor what we should have done differently in order to win. Her advice was both simple and surprising: I should have been the candidate. This advice has lead me to reconsider my political ambitions, which had previously been centered around campaign management and other behind-the-scenes work. She expressed to me that she believed we need more young, progressive women in politics. I can't argue with that.

I left D.C. inspired by our current politicians, my own potential and the futures of my classmates. I had also picked up a Southern drawl and a curiosity about sweet tea - but that's another story.

While participants came from around the nation and hailed beliefs which could be described as Democratic, Republican, Green, Libertarian and downright Communist, they shared a common belief that we can make things better.

The talent and drive that I now know exists in our future politicians is enormous and gives me hope for a future in which each of them is either in office or working to get other good people elected. I spent my days in heated debate with the Republican campaign manager, Amanda Petengil, but I spent my nights marveling at her brilliance and passion. I may have disagreed with her, but I have a deep respect for her and sincerely hope that she remains involved.

Now that I'm home in my beloved Oregon, I'm back to my old tricks with a new sense of purpose and hope. I'm working harder than ever to get high school students out to volunteer on political campaigns; my goal, in conjunction with the Bus Project's other precocious political junkies, is to have ten high school students at every Bus trip canvass between now and election day on November 7, including the one coming up August 26th (information available at busproject.org).

Through this, I hope to inspire and empower other Oregonians young and old to participate and fundamentally shape a system that affects us greatly.

In the end, we are involved in politics because we care about the world we live in. We want a future with a healthy economy, quality education, and equal rights for all. Most of all, we are Americans who, no matter how much we may complain, feel deeply fortunate that we live in a place where civic engagement is an option. Still, if we wish to realize the bright future I hope for, activism isn't just an option; it's a duty.

Zoe Walmer is an incoming junior at Lakeridge High School and a member of the Review/Tidings Youth Board.