University groups strive to involve students politically

Emily Kaiser

The University is being neglected by the state, Minnesota Student Association President Tom Zearley said to a small group Thursday night.

The Student Alumni Ambassadors sponsored a Legislative Kickoff event to educate students about what is happening in the upcoming legislative session and how to get involved.

Zearley, along with seven others, discussed how to get students on campus interested in lobbying the State Legislature in support of the University.

Mike Dean, grassroots coordinator for the University’s Legislative Network, said students have an important voice in the state and more need to get out and lobby.

The Legislative Network works toward getting students, faculty, staff members and alumni involved in lobbying members for the University, Dean said.

“Students can have a significant effect on this process, and we really want to have more students meeting with legislators and also talking to their friends and family,” Dean said.

With the current election hype slowing down within the next week, student groups on campus hope the excitement carries on into local politics, said Kate Suchomel, program director for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group.

“I think a lot of students will take their work in the elections and apply it then to sticking with the process, and going to lobby and getting more involved in politics,” Suchomel said.

Student involvement low

While many students are active at the state level, they are rarely active at the city level, some Twin Cities city council members said.

“I’ve had a couple interactions between students over the years, but it has been very limited,” said St. Paul City Council member Jay Benanav, Ward 4.

He and Minneapolis City Council member Paul Zerby, Ward 2, who represents the Minneapolis campus and surrounding areas, said they used to have regular contact with MSA but no longer hear from them.

Suchomel said MPIRG doesn’t get involved at the city level because of its connections with the other university campuses in Minnesota.

“This year and last year, our issues were more applicable at the state and campus level,” she said.

Benanav said he understands that students are very busy with school and work, but city issues are very important to students.

“Sometimes city issues don’t seem as interesting as state and federal issues, but in some ways, what we do impacts them even more,” he said.

Benanav said the city council deals with issues such as roads, libraries, public safety and plowing, all which students could have valuable input into.

Zerby said the University might pay attention to state politics rather than city politics because the state deals with bigger issues.

“I think the University spends more time in the Legislature because that is where the money is,” he said.

Zerby said that when the University comes to the City Council, they are usually there to hold informational meetings, rather than to do direct lobbying.

Without student input, Zerby said, he still thinks he can represent University students accurately but cited the University’s large government and administration as an issue.

“It’s hard to represent the University because it has such a huge organizational system,” he said. “So much is done just at the University level.”

Zearley said MSA tries to get involved with city government when it directly involves students.

“If we see a big problem we would like to see changed, we will meet with a councilman to work that out,” he said. “After the house fire last year, we started an initiative to make housing safer around campus.”

Zearley said MSA tries also supporting the housing rental fees ordinance in the Minneapolis City Council.

University Lobby Day

Groups on campus are going to be busy planning for the next legislative session, which begins in January.

Various groups on campus organize the annual University Lobby Day, held Feb. 16. Last year, approximately 100 Twin Cities students participated, Suchomel said.

“The four (University) campuses go to the State Legislature and we provide an opportunity for students to come along and talk with their legislators, learn how to lobby and how to be successful at it,” Zearley said.

Giving students tools to lobby about things they find important at the University is imperative, Zearley said.

He said there are several University issues for which students should lobby.

“One of the cases we are going to be making this year is higher-education funding, because that relates to our tuition,” Zearley said. “Also, depending on their proposals, financial aid might be an issue as well.”

Suchomel said students often don’t lobby or get involved because they don’t know where to start.

“Students need to not be afraid of going to the Capitol and talking to their legislators, because young people can get intimidated in the whole process,” she said.

Another important aspect of University lobbying involves proposals for a new football stadium on campus, said Joel Maturi, athletics director for the University.

Maturi said various University groups and departments went to State Senate and House committees this spring with their proposals and met with individual legislators to lobby for a new stadium.

“We were extremely well-received,” Maturi said. “They were very receptive to our proposal.”

Maturi said individual students were not strongly active in their lobbying but MSA did a good job working on the issue.

“The student government has been extremely active in educating our legislators about what our needs and desires are,” he said.

He said that when the Legislature reconvenes in January, the stadium proposal will still be the athletics department’s biggest issue, and it will continue to work closely with MSA.

Suchomel said the student voice is gaining power and students should take advantage of that. She said students need to know that whatever they feel is important is also significant to their legislators.

“It’s important for students to have a voice, because so many legislators don’t hear from their younger constituents,” she said. “They need to know that any time they want, they can speak to their legislator, because they are there to serve them.”