Interview with College Democrats Officers Grace Watkins, President, and Andrew Galo, Secretary

Author: Hunter Kuffel

Interview with College Democrats Officers Grace Watkins, President, and Andrew Galo, Secretary

Grace Watkins, President

Andrew Galo, Secretary

When did you first become involved with politics, and when, if it was a different time, did you first consider yourself left-leaning?

G: I think it was always kind of an integral part of my family. Both of my parents are academics, so it’s something that they both studied. We were asked to start exploring our views and start paying attention to the news from a very young age. That being said, my nuclear family itself is kind of across the spectrum of views, so I think I came into being left-leaning when I was around 10 or 11, just in terms of the high exposure I had to topics. That being said, my brother is different, so I don’t place much stock in the ability to just regurgitate what your parents taught you. I think that was nice that I was able to make my own decisions on that. In terms of being tangibly involved, that came with my freshman year at Notre Dame when I first got involved with College Democrats.

Did your parents make it clear what their views were?

G: I knew what they were. I didn’t feel much pressure to hold them myself, which I appreciated.

They stressed the importance of having views.

G: Absolutely, yeah, I think the only thing that wouldn’t have been tolerated is if I was apolitical.

Andrew, when did you first get involved?

A: Yeah, I first got involved freshman year with Gracie. We volunteered with the congressional campaign of Joe Bock who was a professor here, and then after that we got more involved with the club and we both ran for co-secretary. She wanted to be president then and I’m still the secretary. That was my first full involvement in politics, and it took off and I’ve worked on campaigns since then and I’ve worked for the county party since then. I went to D.C. and worked on the hill for a semester, so I’ve had a lot of experience after coming here. I grew up in a pretty liberal hometown. They call us latte liberals because we’re all pretty affluent people. It’s pretty much white, upper middle-class, but we all identify with urban populations and impoverished people and try to help those less fortunate. I never really figured out that I was left-leaning until high school. I just kind of had these—my parents brought me up in such a way that, these are my values, and it wasn’t necessarily as much ‘We’re Democrats.’ It was more ‘this is how we live our life,’ and those values align with the Democratic party. That being said, my whole immediately family is all democrats, pretty staunchly.

What would you say is the purpose of College Democrats?

G: I would say active discourse and visibility for our views. I mean college is where people really explore what they believe, and I think that that requires a dialogue and we try and be a source of that. Also a community in a place that is split fairly down the middle, in my impression. A lot of my closest friends I’ve found in college democrats so there’s that, and also the ability to give back to the community.

A: We had an officer meeting at the beginning of the year and it kind of set the theme of creating a dialogue. Everything we do centers around that, and that’s why we try to cosponsor events with BridgeND and with College Republicans and Right to Life. That’s why we’re sponsoring a debate watch for the Republican Party. We’re not trying to promote ideas that we think are better than yours. We’re trying to promote a discussion in which you can explore how you think and how you feel, and that just happens to be a vessel for our platform and our ideas.

So it’s definitely more of a dialogue creation than a “you should vote for this person.”

A: Yeah, absolutely.

G: We discuss that, but we won’t issue a formal endorsement for a candidate until after the primaries are over. We thought about doing it. We were contacted by both Clinton and Sanders aides, but we talked to our members, and deferred to what they wanted, which was to wait…we were so split down the middle that it didn’t make sense to choose one over the other.

Once you do endorse a candidate, what will that endorsement entail? Will you go out and knock on doors for example?

G: There are two student chapters running on campus for Sanders and for Clinton. We won’t officially endorse either, but we’re very happy to help set up their chapters because right now they’re in the beginning stages. That’s the rule that we have.

So let’s say this is October 2016 and you’ve endorsed a candidate. What would you be doing?

A: We’d have transitioned from this kind of forum/dialogue mode into more of a campaign force. We’d work with whatever chapter the nominee had and the local party here in St. Joe county, even the Indiana party. We’d have phone banks; we’d have volunteers knock on doors. We’d have rides into South Bend and Mishawaka and Elkhart doing that. We’d basically be doing whatever we could to help turn out voters.

If you could speak to those on campus who know very little about politics, what is the most important step they should take to become more informed?

G: To be critical of what they previously believed and have been told, to look into the issues themselves and start building up a political worldview. Register to vote, research the candidates. That’s really our basic platform.

How does one go about looking into the issues? Because you look at the newspaper and it’s hard to just jump in.

G: Right, coming from two news junkies, it’s hard to think back, but I think first, talking to people that you respect and being willing to ask uncomfortable questions of yourself and others is important.

A: Just push yourself, challenge yourself. My favorite part about college is figuring out who I am. You get to this place where there are all these ideas running around. There’s all these different worldviews, all these different types of people, and you can really come into your own and find out what you like and what you want to do. For me, that was freshman year. I mean a little timid freshman jumping off and knocking on doors for a congressional candidate that I had just met the night before. It’s one of those things where you just kind of feel things out and challenge yourself, and if that’s watching Fox News if you think you’re left-leaning and trying to get that perspective, then that’s great.

Would you say that our campus leans collectively to the right, or has that not been your experience?

G: No, I think there’s a silent—not a silent majority—but a silent portion of campus that leans neither way, which is in some sense frustrating because there are liberals in that pack. I think in the past couple of years, college republicans, especially with their speaker choices, have been more visible. Now that I’m in a position where I’m able to really run the club, one of my goals has been to increase our own visibility. It really hasn’t been my impression that it leans one way or the other. There’s a lot of cross-party issues in terms of the Catholic Church which is really interesting. I appreciate that it’s this way because I think it prevents any sort of groupthink. My brother goes to Berkeley and I think there’s very much the sense in which everyone is liberal there and it’s very self-reinforcing and you don’t get your views challenged, so I appreciated coming here and being asked questions that back home I was just never asked. I was surprised that I felt so strongly about things and that I didn’t have a great argument yet as to why I felt that way, and so it forced me to do that, and it also forced me into situations with people who don’t hold my views and I very much appreciated that and have become very close with a lot of them.

Would you say that one party is more consistent with the views of the typical devout Catholic?

G: Absolutely not. It’s hard for me to speak on this issue since I’m not Catholic, so maybe Andrew can say more.

A: This is something I’ve struggled with. I was raised Catholic, I’m at a Catholic school, so I very much consider myself to be Catholic. I’m also a democrat. So often you hear in the media and even on campus that Republicans are Catholics and that’s how it should be.

G: That’s very much not the case.

A: Right, and personally I’m Catholic and a democrat and I think those views align very well. I think it’s one of those things where you’re not going to find a perfect match. Certain issues align with different parties, different platforms, and that’s an interesting mix here at Notre Dame, a very profoundly Catholic university.

G: I think you come into more variance in terms of what people align themselves with within a party. That’s something that comes up with Catholics quite a bit. For me, my faith informs my politics in some aspects and then also vice versa in terms of a moral obligation to be politically involved. That being said, I don’t hold every view completely in line with the state’s platform as well as the national platform. I don’t vote democrat because it’s easy for me to vote down the line. I try to give due consideration to each issue, and sometimes those aren’t left-leaning.

Would you say there is an issue or set of issues that you talk about in meetings the most?

A: It depends. We try to match our meetings and our issues with what’s going on in the world. So for example, recently there have been a lot of school shootings and talk about gun violence, so we’ve begun to talk in discussions about what we can do to change that and combat that. Last year there was a big push around immigration so we participated in several forums on campus about immigration, we had several issue presentations on immigration. So it really depends on what the salient political issue of the day is.

G: I haven’t seen any come up over and over again.

Are there any issues that should receive special attention from college students in particular?

G: That’s a good question. In the sense that we’re inheriting a lot of problems, I would say that applies to everything in some sense. In terms of things that affect us as college students, loan repayments.

A: College loans yeah, student debt. That’s probably the single biggest issue. But like Grace said, we’re kind of coming in to the end of the baby boomers and we’re not really getting a great outlook.

What has College Democrats changed about you the most?

G: It was my first big opportunity to have a leadership position. There are things I did in high school where I was part of the leading team, but the sense of responsibility that comes with this, the natural attention that the position sometimes gets in interviews I’ve had has changed a lot about me personally. In terms of the environment itself, it’s given me a really nice group of people to debate ideas with. I’ve seen a lot of movement on my views since I got here.

A: I think I’ve really learned how to communicate more effectively and not just get my position out there but really take in other people’s ideas and views and use those to challenge my own views. I’ve learned how to compromise pretty well and know when to just cut your losses and work towards a bigger picture. Leadership has been a big thing. We’ve gotten a pretty big turnout this year and it’s a unique position where we can shape how people engage in discourse and in politics. It’s a pretty cool responsibility and it’s also a pretty daunting one.

G: You feel the pressure of wanting to be the model for our members. I’m a very private person and so living out the ideal of people being open and honest about their politics was a bit of a tension at the beginning. There’s a high visibility in the position. That being said, I think I’m the better for it, so I like that.

Interview with ND College Republicans Former President Mark Gianfalla