By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Daniel Cinquegrani and Gabe Schwartzman started kindergarten together in 1995 and have been friends ever since. They were in the same Cub Scouts den and came up through the Clinton and Bush eras side by side, grade by grade. But now, as students at Bethesda's Walter Johnson High School and part of booming teen involvement in the presidential campaign, the lifelong pals find themselves on opposite sides of the ballot.
Cinquegrani, 17, is president of the school's Young Conservative Club, attended the Republican National Convention in August and volunteers most weekends for Sen. John McCain's campaign. Schwartzman, 18, founded the school's Peace and Social Action Club, volunteers as a climate-change activist and is heading to Virginia to knock on doors for Sen. Barack Obama's campaign this weekend. "We talk politics and have both given each other that 'you-can't-really-believe-that' look," Cinquegrani said. "But we're respectful. We were friends before we were political."
The efforts by the classmates-turned-political-foes are among the examples of what party officials and teachers in the area describe as an extraordinary level of political involvement by high school students in this year's election. Hundreds of local students, many not old enough to vote, are making phone calls, painting rally signs, knocking on doors and raising funds as the campaign enters its final days.
"It's quite remarkable -- the students are more engaged than I've ever seen them," said Josh Shuman, a history teacher at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg and adviser to the High School Democrats Club. "Every day, you see more hats and buttons."
At his school, as at most Montgomery County campuses, Obama (D-Ill.) draws the most support by far, Shuman said.
But Republicans, although outnumbered in the county, said they, too, have seen a jump in student interest. Daniel Zubairi, a youth outreach coordinator for the Maryland GOP, said there are Young Republican Clubs in at least 15 high schools in Montgomery, each with 10 to 40 members.
"We are seeing more activism this year," said Zubairi, who is also a state director for the McCain campaign. Assuming that Montgomery is a lost cause for the Arizona senator, Zubairi has been tapping the teenage supporters for weekly canvassing trips to Virginia. "These kids know the issues really well. It blows your mind."
After school one day last week, the Obama campaign's Bethesda field office was crowded with young volunteers. At one folding table, high school students were typing names into a database and talking serious politics with the surrounding campaign workers. Carmen Izurieta, 16, a junior at Walt Whitman, suddenly pointed at the blouse of Dawn Finzi, 16, a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase.
"Is that American Apparel?" Izurieta asked.
Finzi looked down. "No, Mustard Seed."
"Oh," said Izurieta, and they went seamlessly back to a conversation about get-out-the-vote efforts in Virginia and the other work of electing a president.
Teen fashion chatter has become a fixture of the headquarters, said office director David Hart, along with gum chewing, nonstop texting and other hallmarks of high school life. "It has been a blast to have their energy. They make this a fun place to be," he said.
There is a heavy social element for some volunteers. (The Bethesda Obama office is known as "the BOO" among students, as in, "Are you going to the BOO today?") But the young activists can also be deeply serious about their politics.
Hannah Sherman, a 15-year-old at Walt Whitman and the daughter of a Democratic fundraiser, won't be a legal member of the electorate for three more years. She sees volunteering as a way to play a role in issues she feels passionately about.
"Part of the reason I come here, like, almost every day, is because I can't vote," she said. "We're compensating."
For his part, Cinquegrani has been with his candidate since the beginning, even back in the days when McCain was widely written off. The Bethesda teen met the senator one day at the campaign's Arlington office, which was so empty that Cinquegrani got 10 minutes with him one-on-one.
"He said, 'Hey, your shirt has my face on it,' " Cinquegrani recalled.
Cinquegrani, who is the only Republican in his family, met McCain again in New Hampshire, when he flew there at his own expense to work on that state's primary. He also attended the Republican convention in Minneapolis as a guest of the Maryland party.
Being politically active has become easier since he got his driver's license, Cinquegrani said. His mother, Gayle Cinquegrani, remembers driving him to Metro stations and waiting as he manned voter registration tables. In recent weeks, he has been driving himself and other teen Republicans to pitch McCain's message door to door in Northern Virginia.
"Only once has anyone said to me: 'You're too young to vote. It shouldn't matter to you,' " he said. "For the most part, people on both sides are very polite."
As Cinquegrani was getting deeper into conservative politics, his old Cub Scout mate Schwartzman was becoming an environmental and peace activist and, in recent months, working to elect Obama.
"It was at the beginning of high school when we really started to veer apart politically," Schwartzman said. "Right now, we're both so engaged, but there are definitely times when we can just sit down and talk about normal things at school."
Several high school volunteers agreed that young people seem to have an easier time getting along with political opponents than their adult counterparts. Although adults seem to develop ever-more sensitive hair triggers in the run-up to Election Day, the teenagers said they just don't find it that hard to put politics aside.
"My best friend is a Republican," Izurieta said. "We are still tight. No offense to the campaign, but my friendship with [her] is worth so much more than which candidate we like."