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Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Road to Election Night with UCI's College Republicans


By Irina Bernebring Journiette

It’s 10.40 p.m.; the polls have been closed for two hours and forty minutes. In a darkly lit room, in the Republican election night party headquarters at the Hyatt hotel in Irvine, a group of people is sitting quiet, waiting. The mood is somber. Occasionally the silence is interrupted by cheers from the next door ballroom or by someone whispering.

“Is she giving her concession speech?” a young woman all dressed in black with a pearl necklace asks the young man sitting next to her. She runs her fingers over her necklace, twisting a pearl repetitively.

“I don’t know,” he answers, sighs and raises his eyebrows. She looks down at her cell phone on the white linen tablecloth, smiles briefly and reads out loud the headline of the O.C Register: “Fiorina stays in the lead in senate race.” People around the table she is sitting at pick up their phones, reading, confirming what was just said. 20 minutes pass, the mood in the room changes. The young woman smiles again and updates the browser on her phone. The concession has been cancelled. Republican Senatorial Candidate Carly Fiorina has decided to not pick up the phone and hand over the victory to Democrat opponent Barbara Boxer just yet. Salon B at the Hyatt in Irvine is emptied and the crowd of eighty is rushed into the Grand Ballroom.

It’s 11.15 pm when Carly Fiorina enters the stage. “You’re beautiful,” an older woman wearing the flag as a scarf yells. Fiorina shows a perfect line of white teeth and starts talking, the cheers from the crowd drowning out her voice. She scouts the crowd, lets them cheer for a minute, then she raises her right hand and the room goes quiet.

“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s start…,” she pauses, glances around the room, “by saying that it is a great night to be a Republican tonight.”

27 days before the election.

It is a couple of minutes until the College Republicans, at University of California in Irvine, weekly meeting is supposed to begin. So far only seven members have showed up for this second meeting of the first quarter. Linette Choi, 4’9”, wearing an all black outfit, a pearl necklace and with her black hair in a knot, is sitting conformably behind her school-bench overlooking the room. She is quietly waiting for the room to fill up, and has spent the hour before, as she does every week, on the same spot, going over the day’s meeting in her head. She looks up from her computer screen to welcome newcomers. Slowly, classroom 103 in the Social Science trailer next to the Langson Library starts to fill up. People greet each other, reunited since last week, glad to be among familiar faces.

“College campuses today are ideological battlegrounds for the future of America due to the liberal dominion over college faculty, curriculum, and administration. This is especially dangerous for the future of America and the Republican Party because partisanship is chosen between the ages of 18 and 24”, the California College Republicans write on their website. The College Republicans were founded in 1892 with the goal to “build and foster lifelong allegiance with the party and the conservative movement for college students.” According to themselves they today have over 250,000 members on more than 1,500 campuses nationwide. The group has existed on UCI since 1981, and claims to be “dedicated to balancing and enriching political and philosophical debate on the university campus.” On their website the mission statement can be found beneath a picture of the flag and Ronald Reagan.

“We promote the principles of the Republican Party both on campus and in our community to advance a free and prosperous society. These principles include individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, limited government, and a free market economy. We serve as a source of information, a place for lively and open debate, and an important counterbalance to the faulty philosophy of the political Left. We welcome all who wish to learn more about our Grand Old Party, center-right politics, and the American political system.”

Linette herself has been a part of the College Republicans since her freshman year at the University of California, Irvine. She remembers her first meeting with excitement. How she arrived early and was greeted by the current president sitting on the very same spot she is sitting now. For her that meeting was the first time she encountered other young conservatives. “In school I was used to hearing how and why Christianity was so bad, and how it was bad to be a conservative. The ideas I was reinforced in school were liberal,” Linette said when talking about her first meeting with the College Republicans.

Linette Choi was born in 1989 in Fontana, California; she spent her early years in Chino and moved with her family to Brea towards the end of her 6th grade. Her father is a pastor and her mother a pastor’s wife and a pianist. Both her parents are interested in politics and have influenced her political career. Since her early childhood she remembers how they used to discuss politics and current events around the dinner table. Linette has always engaged in political discussions but did not start volunteering for a political party until her freshman year in college, 2007. Then she teamed up with the Mike Huckabee presidential campaign and worked with the campaign for seven months until he withdrew his candidacy. In 2008, during her sophomore year, Linette Choi spent one quarter in Washington DC interning at the conservative think-thank The Heritage Foundation. From a front view seat she saw the Republicans defeated in the 2008 presidential electionsher first thought was to start looking forward to the next election, midterms 2010.

Right after the first meeting at the College Republicans, Linette knew she wanted to emerge herself in their work and climbed the ranks quickly, ending up as head of recruitment in her junior year. Now, she is the one sitting comfortably in front of the group, as their president.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Linette Choi stands in front of the group holding the small flag high in her left hand and proudly holding her right hand over her heart. Voices in unison recite the pledge. Then a second of silence goes by, before the flag is tucked back into the Macy’s bag beneath Linette’s chair, and the meeting officially can begin.

Plans are already being made for Conservative week, which takes place during spring quarter. It is the College Republicans’ most important time to spread their ideas on campus.

“We have to start finding speakers soon,” Filip Sola, director of recruitment, says. Filip Sola considers himself a Libertarian; he advocates individual liberty, freedom of thought and action and limited restriction by the government. Both he and his brother are active members of the College Republicans. When he talks, he talks with a strong conviction, when he listens he focus his piercing eyes on the speaker, when he is in doubt of what’s being said, he crosses his arms, leans back in his chair and analyses what’s being said with a puzzled look.

Suggestions for speakers for Conservative week are put on the table. George W. Bush can be heard, Mitt Romney, Dennis Prager, Mike Huckabee. When a name is mentioned someone in this small room knows someone who works for or with someone that might be able to help them get in contact with the person they want. The young Republicans seem to be well connected. The discussion is interrupted when a savvy-dressed young man comes bursting through the door.

“This is the best time to be a republican,” Izaak Pichardo from Carly Fiorina’s campaign, Students for Carly, says grinning. The group looks around, almost questioning. “This is a pretty liberal campus I guess, but this is going to be a great republican year. We have some great candidates,” he talks fast but articulates well. The group is starting to catch on. “This is one of those years that we are going to be a part of history. This is the year we’re going to say – I was there, about.” He’s working the small room. Someone is nodding. “The Dems have no idea what they’re in for this year.”

23 days before the election.

Cheers are heard over the parking lot by the Orange County Republican headquarters in Fullerton, OC. Carly Fiorina is wooing the middle-aged crowd in her tight red sweater, a small pin with the American and Californian flag pinned neatly on the left side of her chest. The office is crowded; volunteers are doing phone banking, calling people on behalf of their candidate asking for their help. It is 95 degrees. Fiorina seeks refuge from the heat outside and steps into the office. “Do you want to talk to Carly,” one of the phone bankers asks the person on the other side of the line. Fiorina confidently grabs the phone. The crowd is bursting with excitement.

Linette moves around the office with confidence, greeting old and new faces. Republican Congressman Ed Royce strides among the crowd. His handshake is firm. “How are you doing?” he asks her and shows a row of perfectly white teeth. “Say republican!” a girl says smiling and snaps a picture of her friend and Ed Royce.

30 minutes after Fiorina arrives, she jumps into a black van. Before closing the door behind her she reaches out of the seat and does a thumbs up. The crowd applauds, almost intoxicated by her presence. She climbs back into the car and closes the window and as she’s driven off the driver honks his horn and the crowd cheers. When the car is out of sight the crowd begins to disperse.

13 days before the election.

Linette Choi leans forward in her seat, places her head in the palm of her hand and fixes her eyes on Tucker Morgan. The debate is about gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and whether or not she is Republican enough.

“Why should we vote for her as governor?” Filip asks Tucker.

“Because she is a great candidate,” Tucker, wearing a green “Meg 2010” T-shirt, replies. Filip shakes his head.

“There is one libertarian Tea party candidate, Charlene Nightingale, she’s small time,” Filip says. “I mean, she’s not going to win, but if you need to give your vote to someone—”.

“…then you give it to Meg Whitman,” Tucker fills in and scoffs.

“I wouldn’t,” Filip says, leans back in his chair and crosses his arms.

“You know someone’s going to be in the office, so you might as well vote—,” Tucker says.

“So, you should just vote for the winning team, kind of thing?” Filip asks back and raises an eyebrow.

“No, you might as well vote for the person that—,” Tucker replies and cracks his knuckles.

“You should vote for your conscious, that’s what it is,” Filip says.

“From what I’m hearing from you guys I get the feeling that you just don’t like Meg Whitman,” Tucker says and tilts his head.

“I mean, I don’t like her stances, in issues such as pro-life,” Filip replies.

“Since you’re working on her campaign do you want to explain that for us,” Linette turns to Tucker.

“What?” he asks, letting his chin rest on his now closed fist.

“I know from what I’ve heard about her that she supports government funding of abortions,” Linette says.

A moment of silence goes by. Linette does not support Whitman. “I am very strongly pro life. Three people were in the primary elections for the governor’s race: Meg Whitman, Tom Campbell and Steve Poizner. Tom Campbell is known as a liberal Republican, he supports abortion, gay marriage and all that. Meg Whitman supports abortion and I believe she even supports state-funded abortions, which is a big deal for Republicans. Steve Poizner didn’t approve state-funded abortions but he was not against it. I believe that the only time you should be allowed to have an abortion is in the case that the life of the mother is at stake or if the woman has been a subject of rape or incest,” Linette told me during one of our interviews.

Tucker takes a deep breath. “I haven’t studied that issue much. Yes, it is important, but for me it’s not something that I focus on. But I do know that she is pro-choice, her fundamental reason behind that is that she feels it’s not the government’s place to legislate that issue—that’s up to each individual. She has been critiqued for that, for not following true republican values, but at the same time the limitation of political power, empowering the individual and not the government, is very republican.” Tucker ends the discussion.

“That’s fine, that’s her prerogative,” Filip mumbles and looks away.

5 days before the election.

Over and over the same message can be heard, “Hi, my name is blank and I am a volunteer for the Republican campaign, is blank available?” The College Republicans are at the local campaign head quarters in Costa Mesa doing phone banking. They all work off the same call sheet. In a cubicle far back in the crowded office space, Daniel Grant and Brenden Graffuis are sitting back to back, dialing number after number. Daniel, a freshman, has just recently joined the College Republicans.

“Do you feel good about this?” Tucker Morgan asks.

“Yes,” Daniel replies, his leg bouncing under the table.

First call. No answer. Daniel punches in 553F to send an automatic message and circles the code for not available, NA, on the answer sheet and moves on. Second call. Still no answer. He repeats the process. Holding the phone between his head and shoulder, he twines the cord between his fingers. Eager for someone to answer.

“How’s it going?” Brenden turns around and asks.

“Good, but no one is answering,” Daniel replies. Third call. Finally an answer.

“Oh, I’ve already sent in my ballot,” the person on the other end says. Daniel circles a Y and Y2 in the answer sheet, meaning that the person supports both Whitman and Fiorina. He hangs up and is interrupted while making call number four.

“Come on people, only five days left!” The supervisor who walks around in the office, making sure that everything is going according to plan, yells. Daniel moves on quickly, next call, and next and next. A number of calls go by, Daniel completes his first answer sheet. “Most people seem to not answer. I guess I was expecting, that since I do the same thing back home and let it go to the machine,” Daniel says.

“Oh, I just got yelled at,” Brenden turns around, eyes wide open, almost smiling. “Don’t call my house again, she said”. He turns back around, leans back in his chair and fiddles with his pen, dialing the next number.

“You guys are dynamite!” The supervisor walks by again.

“Maybe I should call that lady back?” Brenden says grinning, letting the pen roll between his fingers.

15 minutes and 14 calls later, Daniel has had three pickups and one refuse. “I’m’ not a pro yet, I need to get faster,” he says. He looks down on his answer sheet and reads the next name out loud. “Tammy. Let’s see if she answers. Oh, I have a good feeling about this one.” He stretches out his fingers and dials another number.

Election Day

Filip is tabling outside of Humanities Hall, standing behind a plastic table filled with blue, white and red posters for the College Republicans. “Normally I’ll try and make it look like the 4th of July exploded on the table,” he says. So far, however, recruitment is going slow. “I consider myself more of a gatekeeper,” he says and goes on to explain their laid back strategy: “People who want to learn about our issues will come and seek us out.” Linette fills in: “We are always open to discuss with people, but to persuade anyone to become a Republican is not really possible.” This quarter, around a hundred or so people have signed up for the College Republican email list according to Linette. However, so far only a handful shows up on each meeting. “Young republicans are rare,” a republican friend told me one time, “Especially on universities.” Linette agrees. Why do you think that is I asked her once; “I don’t know,” she answered, and pushed back a string of her black hair that broke loose from the perfect knot on the back of her head. “Maybe young people are very idealistic, once you get more life experience, you get more realistic. Not saying that young Republicans are better than Democrats. There is a saying that goes: If you are a conservative before you’re in your twenties, you have no heart; If you’re a liberal after your fifties, you have no brain.” She laughed and continued: “When you’re younger you are idealistic, you have a lot of passion and want to accomplish a lot of things. You are just starting to see the world and get a view of what it is about. You see a lot of the injustices, bad things are happening in the world and you really want to fix that. A lot of the time there is a notion that liberal ideas and policies help advocate the poor and peace—causes that you want to support. But, once you grow older and have lived part of your life, you’ll see that that’s not always the best way to handle things. The causes might still be good, but what you want to achieve eventually is not going to happen by just following idealistic ideas. I guess the idea behind that saying is that you grow more realistic as you grow older.”

For Linette, being a young Republican meant sometimes feeling isolated, especially in high school. “It was almost like no one ever agreed with me. I mean, I was voted the most conservative in high school. And even if there were other conservatives—I’m sure there were—they would never speak up. Liberals tend to be very vocal; they tend to take control of discussions and debates. When they’re controlling the discussion, unless you’re really braveno, not necessarily brave, but really sure of what you’re going to say, it’s really difficult to speak against the majority. The problem is, a lot of liberal ideas sound good from the start and are easy to defend. Conservative ideas, however, are not always the ideas that sound logical at first. To be able to defend them you really need to know all the facts and what you want to say and how. If you say it a little bit wrong you will be called a racist or a bigot.”

Being called a racist was exactly what happened to Linette during one of the groups Affirmative action bake sales during her freshman year. The group had a table where they were selling baked goods, basing the pricing on what race you belonged to. White people were asked to pay the most and African Americans the least. “What we were trying to show with that sign is what affirmative action does. It divides people into races. Affirmative action is basically saying: we think this is the hierarchy of races. Whites are “the best” and African Americans are at the bottom of the ladder and need the most help.” Linette told me. After a while two women in their forties, one white, one Hispanic, came up to the table looking mad.

“Do you want to buy anything or have any questions?” Linette asked.

“No, we’re not here to support you guys,” they replied and engaged in a discussion ending with one of the women calling Linette a racist.

Election Night

8 p.m. The polls are closed. “I did not vote for Whitman,” Filip says, turning left at Culver Dr. on his way to the Hyatt Regency in Irvine. “She wasn’t Republican enough for me and you don’t vote for the person you think is going to win, you vote for your idea. Now I’m hoping for Fiorina. But it’s not like the apocalypse is going to happen if we don’t win, like some people think. I say, let Brown win this election and let him fall on his face.” He merges onto the San Diego Freeway and takes exit seven onto Jamboree Rd. “I voted for Charlene Nightingale, a tea party candidate. It’s not like she’s going to win, but I admire her. She challenges the fundamental structure of the political system that doesn’t really care for either you or me.” He turns right and drives up to the hotel.

“They’ve already called the house for the Republicans,” Linette says. The polls have been closed for forty minutes. The Grand Ballroom is starting to fill up. There are handshakes and hugs, smiles of familiarity. The average age is around 45. Women, wearing sleek dresses, and men, wearing suits. Linette and Filip are standing just beneath the stage. The conservative commentator and radio personality Dennis Prager is thanking the previous speaker, standing in front of the projected screen showing Fox news. He climbs off the stage to the tunes of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. He grins at the spectators. Projected numbers fly by on the screen. Occasionally the chatter from the ballroom is interrupted by cheering, or loud booing. A picture of Harry Reid, the Republican turned Democrat, is shown and the ballroom boos in unison. “I always thought of him as a Democrat anyway,” Filip says and chuckles.

9.10 p.m. Damon Dunn, candidate for Secretary of State, takes the stage. He talks fast, repeats himself, talks about his hardships in life, about the role of the government. “The same people who were poor when Obama took the office are going to be poor when he leaves.” He is met with cheers. “This is what I’m trying to say,” Filip says not taking his eyes of Dunn. Flashes going off brighten up the room. A sea of the homogenate predominately white crowd looks in awe on the only black man in the room. Damon Dunn grew up poor, became an NFL player and millionaire businessman before deciding to run for Secretary of State. Not the image of the stereotypical Republican. “There is a general stereotype saying that all Republicans are white and rich,” Linette told me during our first lengthy interview. A stereotype that she feels she does not fit into, identifying with Mike Huckabee, a man who knows what it’s like to live the life that most Americans do and who brings those ideals to the Republican Party. During 2007 and 2008 she spent nine months working on his presidential campaign before he withdrew. “His beliefs fit with what I believe. His social views are in line with the Republican Party platform. Then he knows how to put things in a certain way so that people understand him really well and they are not offended. I really like that he… A lot of Republicans… Let me rephrase. When people look at the Republican Party, they think of it as a party for the rich. Huckabee changed that. He grew up poor, washing windows for a living.” The Republican Party being a party for the rich advocating tax breaks for the wealthy and not the middle-class is a stereotype she feels is untrue. “The idea is; rich people are the ones who do sustain the economy, they invest the most since they have the most money. They make the economy run, if they start needing to pay more of their money to the government it’s not likely that they will invest more in the economy and consume more. That in turn is eventually going to hurt the middle- and lower-class people. That’s basically, to put it simply, the trickle down economy that Republicans advocate. And that’s always been represented as Republicans being for the rich.” Linette says.

It’s 9.20 pm. 20 percent of the votes are counted. It’s a tie: Boxer – Fiorina, 47 – 47.

“If Fiorina wins, this place is going to go crazy,” Filip says.

“It’s actually somewhat of a shock that she has got a chance at all,” Linette says and twists a pearl on her necklace.

10 p.m. “Normally we would get our results from the State. But, hey! They’re Dems!” Dennis Prager says. The crowd in front of the stage laughs. “30 percent of the votes are counted and Fiorina is one point up,” he continues. The crowd cheers. Linette updates the browser on her phone. “It still says that Boxer is in the lead,” she says, glaring down on the results presented by CNN. “Why has Fox already called Boxer?”

11.15 p.m. Fiorina has decided not to concede. “California's always a little bit different, right? Here in California, here is where we are: 36 percent of the votes have been counted and we are in a dead heat.” She pauses, gives the crowd a chance to applaud before she continues. “The facts are; it is too close to call. The facts are; it's going to be a long night. We're going to be watching those returns all night. All those people who called the race, it was maybe not a smart thing to do.” She leaves the stage to the cheering from the crowd. It’s over.

Results from all over the country continue to come in. The Republican Party has had an historical election. They have taken back the House and are now in a majority with 239 versus 186 seats. The Republican gain of 63 seats is the biggest gain since 1948, when the Democrats gained 75. The Senate still remains in the control of the Democrats but the margins are slim, 52-47. This is a Republican night indeed. Everywhere except California. At 11.35 p.m. the news about Whitman’s loss in the gubernatorial race is in. Jerry Brown, 53.8 percent, Meg Whitman, 40.9 percent, Charlene Nightingale, 1.7 percent. “Tonight has not turned out quite as we had hoped,” Whitman says in her conceding speech.

An hour after Fiorina’s speech the ballroom at the Hyatt in Irvine is empty. The scene is being taken down. Linette and Filip are sitting in a sofa outside in the lobby. Her legs are dangling, almost touching the floor.

“This election was close,” she says and sinks deeper into the couch.

“Yeah, at least we made Boxer sweat,” Filip says and smiles.

“I’m glad we took back the house; I’m just disappointed for California’s sake,” Linette says, yawns and blinks heavily.

“Wake up sleepyhead” a passer-by says and laughs. They greet, she smiles.

“It funny, I can’t remember his name,” she concludes and updates the browser on her phone one last time. Boxer, 51 percent, Fiorina, 44 percent. Linette shrugs her shoulders, already making plans for the presidential election 2012.

Reporting notes:

- In total 3 hours of sit down interview with Linette Choi, president of the College Republicans.

- 1 interview with Filip Sola

- 1 interview with Brenden Graffuis

- 1 interview with Daniel Grant

- 4 Wednesday night meetings with the group

- Observation, at rally for Carly Fiorina, GOP at Headquarters

- Observation, phone banking in Costa Mesa

- Observation of Election Night at Republican election night party at Hyatt Irvine.

- The College Republican website, http://www.crnc.org/

- The California College Republican website, http://collegegop.org/

- The UCI CR website, http://crucirvine.blogspot.com/

- Election results, http://vote.sos.ca.gov/

- Recap of Carly Fiorina’s election night speech, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1onk-kkAsBc

- Recap of Meg Whitman’s election night speech, http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/video?id=7762207

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