Katelyn Doering, Staff Writer
As the only political groups on campus explicitly representing the major American political parties, the College Republicans and the College Democrats play a unique role in the political dialogue at Notre Dame.
This role is one that both Mark Gianfalla, president of the College Republicans, and Sean Long, co-president of the College Democrats, would like to expand in order to promote constructive dialogue and cooperation between members of the Notre Dame community with different political views.
To accomplish these goals, both student leaders have initiated a renewed effort to plan events and programs that get students talking.
“This year, we’re really trying to make in good faith an effort to increase participation, political literacy and political engagement,” Long says. While both clubs share this goal, each has a nuanced approach: They host different kinds of events, fundraise in different ways and seek to highlight different current political issues.
The mission of the Notre Dame College Republicans is to “help elect Republicans and prepare future leaders of the party and our country,” according to their website. The mission statement also notes that club members “hope to do [their] part to increase conservative values on campus.”
Current president Mark Gianfalla, a junior finance major from Long Island, New York, is working to encourage “active membership” among conservative students to ensure the success of the club’s mission.
The Notre Dame College Republicans are the campus chapter of the College Republican National Committee. This year’s club has a dues-paying membership of 200 students and a listserv of over 1,100 students who receive club communications. During an election year, or what Gianfalla refers to as an “on” year, meetings are held once a month; in other years, meetings are held at least every other month. The average meeting attracts around 30 students and involves current events updates, a short presentation from a speaker and information about opportunities for getting involved at upcoming events.
The club is led by a team of 7 officers, each with specific duties defined by the club’s constitution. These officers are elected annually in early April by a majority of dues-paying membership present at the election meeting. Anyone who has attended more than half of the club events held during that year can present himself or herself for election. While multiple people usually run for each position, Gianfalla notes that “more competition for the elections” is a priority of the officers in this coming year.
To accomplish their goal of active involvement among members, the College Republicans sponsor campaigning events, debate watches and networking opportunities; these events usually attract between 50 and 100 students. Held early in the spring semester, usually in February, the Lincoln Day Dinner is a formal, catered event featuring conservative-minded speakers who discuss topics such as achieving success in a career and sharing political views in public life.
“This year we have some good prospects so hopefully it’ll be bigger than ever,” says Gianfalla. The club fundraises actively by collecting dues, selling club apparel such as the club’s popular “bro tank” and hosting a concession stand on a home football weekend.
The Notre Dame College Democrats “strive to promote equality, inclusion and access to the American Dream for all Americans,” according to their website. The mission statement also notes that “we seek to promote tolerance, preserve human dignity and embody Democratic ideals through personal action, by advancing President Obama’s agenda and by supporting local elected officials.”
Sean Long, a political science and international economics double major from Great Falls, Virginia, is the current co-president of the club. Like his counterparts in the College Republicans, Long encourages student involvement and political dialogue: “In 2009-10, we were the Notre Dame Club of the Year….Since then, attendance has waned through last year.…That’s really been our main focus of the year, just getting people interested.”
The Notre Dame College Democrats are the campus chapter of the College Democrats of America. This year’s club has a dues-paying membership of 71 students. General meetings are held every other week. The club has five elected officer positions, with 6 students holding office this year. The officers are chosen the first week in April through competitive elections.
As part of their initiative to increase participation in the club, the College Democrats host many different kinds of events. One of the more popular features is the “Dining with Dems” series, in which the club hosts a dinner and invites a professor to serve as the featured speaker on a relevant topic.
“Our first one was with Professor Sebastian Rosato, on foreign policy that Democrats should support, and our next one is November 14 with Professor Candida Moss, who recently debated Bill O’Reilly on FOX News,” Long says. The dinners are a way for students to meet and interact with professors in a setting outside the classroom. Long sees these interactions as a crucial way of helping students, especially freshmen, engage with political issues in a professional manner. “Whether or not the professor is Democrat or Republican, it’s important to forge those relationships early on,” Long adds.
Other events the College Democrats have hosted include campaigning opportunities, debate watches and Progressive Day. These events attract between 25 and 70 students, “depending on student curiosity about the event,” Long says. Like the College Republicans, the College Democrats’ most successful fundraising initiative has been the sale of club apparel.
“An open mind”
Despite their independent approaches to getting students involved in the political life on campus, the College Republicans and College Democrats have found much on which they can agree. This year the officers are making a conscious effort to work together to promote their shared goals.
Recently the groups co-sponsored a “Mortgaging the Future” forum in Washington Hall, an event that both leaders proudly deemed a great success. Over 600 people attended the presentation by Stanley Druckenmiller and Jimmy Dunne about the national debt and the future of the country.
A “Bipartisan Bash” social event and an initiative to improve town-gown relations in cooperation with South Bend’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg are also in the works. Both groups frequently collaborate with Notre Dame Student Government to sponsor their bipartisan events.
When discussing the political culture on campus, both leaders expressed excitement about bringing students together to express their opinions honestly and establish areas of agreement.
“We all want the student body to be more politically active and not be in that Notre Dame bubble,” Gianfalla explains.
There is a subtle tension, however, between each president’s desired role for his club in this debate. Gianfalla maintains that a majority of the student body is “politically right-leaning,” but he also sees a disconnect that College Republicans wants to remedy: “We’re an underrepresented majority, and I think the left-leaning political students are an outspoken minority. So I want to see our club become a louder, more representative voice.”
Long, by contrast, sees a need for a “safe environment” where views can be expressed even if they are not in accordance with a “predominant view” that liberal students perceive as threatening. “I think there’s a feeling that if I put my view out there, there’s going to be some hostility directed against it,” Long says. Having raised this concern, Long nevertheless stresses that both groups, by working together, are lessening this perceived sense of hostility: “We’re creating a discourse that’s not so much Democrats versus Republicans, but Democrats and Republicans.”
While they are working to build a relationship of cooperation, the two political groups continue to reserve differences, particularly about which national political issues should be at the forefront of political debate on campus. “Probably the biggest concerns for anybody our age are the fiscal issues, and that’s one of the reasons that we held this huge Mortgaging the Future event,” Gianfalla says.
While Long agrees that fiscal issues are important, he notes that the College Democrats have placed heavy emphasis this year on the issue of immigration. In collaboration with the Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy, the College Democrats are sponsoring a number of events designed to support comprehensive immigration reform, including lectures, a documentary watch and phone banks contacting elected leaders in Washington.
Nevertheless, their respectful disagreement on political goals and important issues has not impeded the leaders’ ability to cooperate in other areas. “The College Democrats’ co-presidents and I have a great working relationship,” Gianfalla says. “We have regular meetings and regular correspondence, if not weekly, and we always have some kind of event that we’re planning together as well. So it’s not completely partisan.”
Long agrees: “I’d like to think that we have a good relationship with the College Republicans ….While recognizing that we have our disagreements, it’s important to create at least a bridge of discussion, where we can come to some agreement, at least come to the table and talk, rather than bark.”
“We definitely came to the table this year with an open mind,” Gianfalla explains.
Katelyn Doering is a junior political science major who thinks fall at Notre Dame is one of the most beautiful things in the world. If you agree (and of course you do), contact her at email@example.com