The Rhode Island Student Political Empowerment Conference returned to Brown this year, bringing speakers to inspire students from around the state to enter the political process.
The event, which opened with a keynote address from Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 Friday night, featured training sessions in which Rhode Island policy leaders spoke about the various skills that brought them to the forefront of their fields.
Organizers said the event was bipartisan and led by members of various college political organizations from around the state. A former chairman of the California Republican Party, a senior organizer at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and a career adviser from the University all ran training sessions.
“Didn’t the president say humble foreign policy? Didn’t he promise to regulate carbon dioxide…? Aren’t deficits something we want to tackle, not bring back?” Chafee said about his experience as a moderate Republican under the administration of former President George W. Bush. In his keynote address, Chafee spoke about the difficulties that both he and his father, John Chafee — who served as governor of Rhode Island from 1963 to 1969 and as a U.S. senator from Rhode Island from 1976 to 1999 — faced as members of a Republican party that was slowly moving away from the policies they cared about.
Chafee detailed a list of confrontations with the more conservative wing of the Republican Party that ultimately led to his decision to become an independent that reached as far back as 1964, when supporters of Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-AZ, booed the moderate Republican New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller during the Republican National Convention.
Chafee pointed to the midterm elections of 1994 as a particular moment that shifted the Republican Party to the right. He said several newly elected “far-right” conservative senators tried to remove his father from the chairmanship of a committee because he refused to toe the party line.
After Chafee’s father died in 1999, Chafee was appointed to serve out the remainder of his term in the Senate. He promptly won reelection in 2000, serving as a part of the coalition of Republicans who were supposed to promote the agenda of the newly elected president. Chafee said he was immediately disappointed with the trajectory of Bush’s administration, following his positive relationship with former President George H. W. Bush, whose presidency he said would be remembered as a period of moderation.
Chafee cited the Iraq War as a major reason for his disenchantment with the president. He was the only Republican senator to vote against the Senate’s authorization of the use of force in Iraq.
Bush’s reelection in 2004 convinced Chafee that Rhode Islanders would not vote for a Republican senator in 2006, so he either had to leave the party or not run again, he said. But the 2004 election had returned the Senate to the Republicans, so he was in a strong position to protect Rhode Island jobs during debates over important bills in 2005 and 2006. He had to decide between protecting himself and defending Rhode Island, he said.
Chafee decided to remain a Republican, a choice that led to his 2006 defeat by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., he said. Soon after the election, he disaffiliated from the Republican Party and ran for governor as an independent in 2010. During the talk, he did not address speculation that he might run as a Democrat in 2014 when he faces reelection.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., provided the final keynote address Sunday afternoon, discussing various pieces of legislation currently before the Senate and taking questions from the audience. While answering a question about a reform of Senate rules proposed by Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-NV, Reed clarified he was talking about “the other Reed.” “I style myself as the young, good-looking one,” he said, “which I don’t think he finds funny.”
Reed, who serves on the Armed Services, Appropriations and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committees, discussed his efforts to prevent the interest rate on student loans — currently at 3.4 percent — from doubling to 6.8 percent. Total debt from student loans reached $1 trillion recently, surpassing the total amount of credit card debt held in the United States, Reed said. “We fixed (the interest rates) last year. Hopefully we’ll fix it this year.”
Reed also spoke optimistically about the prospects for reducing the federal deficit to a sustainable level. Due to various deficit reduction measures including the sequester, which went into effect March 1, Congress has already achieved $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years, he said. Though Congress still needs $1.6 trillion in reduction to reach a sustainable level, he said he does not think cuts to Medicare and Social Security — as proposed in President Obama’s recent budget — should be a part of that effort.
Shifting to foreign policy, Reed also spoke about the recent threats from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. “They have been trying to use their nuclear capabilities to influence aid,” he said. He also discussed his frustrations with the Syrian conflict in which 100,000 people have died. “It’s a very difficult situation to try to resolve externally.”
Students in the audience asked Reed about Obama’s budget, green energy and financial reform, which Reed, as a member of the Banking Committee, helped pass in 2009 through the Dodd-Frank Act.
The first of two panels about Rhode Island politics featured members of the local media, and the second hosted four politically active graduates of Rhode Island colleges speaking about their experiences as activists, representatives and policy makers.
Sen. Adam Satchell, D-West Warwick, said he had a long history of advocacy for the public education system, and it was this interest that drove him to run for office. “I didn’t run to make friends. I ran to make a difference,” Satchell said.
Nicole Pollock ’08, who works in environmental advocacy, advised the audience to cast a wide net when looking for jobs. “It’s never going to be perfect,” Pollock said, “and that’s okay.”
Patrick Nagle ’10 works for MASSPIRG, a consumer advocacy group, and advocates for transportation funding in Massachusetts. He grew up in a small town and helped to found a Gay-Straight Alliance at his high school. He advised the audience to aim high.
“If you want to be president, you can do it,” he said. “We elect one every four years whether we like it or not.”
“I eat, sleep and breathe marriage equality” working for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said organization spokesman Devin Driscoll, who graduated from Providence College in 2008. Driscoll urged those interested in policy to have “a really strong work ethic” and not to be intimidated by those who don’t take young people seriously.
Organizers of the event Asne Oyehaug ’13 and Samantha Powell ’13 have both been involved in the conference since its first iteration in 2011. Powell said the idea was to bring students from different colleges across Rhode Island together, discuss important issues and “get involved and energized.” Both Powell and Oyehaug agreed that the training sessions had been smoother this year than last because they had “good feedback” on the trainers they selected.