The idea was born last spring, says Steve Carlson, a University of Maryland senior, after one of his friends was killed by a drunk driver in front of a popular student bar in College Park.
When he and some other students asked town officials to improve safety around the bar, they felt the response was patronizing, and in the time-honored tradition of American politics they vowed to do something about it.
At the beginning of the school year this fall the Student Government Association (SGA) placed town fathers on notice that the 10,500 undergraduates who live in dormitories and university-owned housing were going to be a major factor in this year's municipal elections. There would be a voter registration drive, a slate of "student-oriented" candidates and a full airing of the issues that are important to student life.
With two days to go before election day, however, not even the most optimistic student thinks the campaign has had much success. Poor organization, a series of tactical errors, and the perennial foe of college organizers -- apathy -- have convinced local political observers that student power in College Park is a long way from being a reality.
"This is not the 1960s," Carlson concedes ruefully. But it's not as if he and his fellow members of the SGA didn't give the election a college try.
A rally at the height of the registration campaign promised "beer, pizza, hot dogs and power," as one student described it. Full page ads in the campus newspaper answered the question, "How to become important? -- count yourself in and make yourself count -- register to vote in College Park".
But things definitely did not proceed according to plan. A button declaring that by registering to vote, "I screwed College Park" made one student-backed candidate for town council, Robert Almond, renounce the SGA endorsement as "poison". The SGA has since revoked its endorsement.
Then, during the last week of the campaign, a student government officer closely involved in the campaign was fired after being accused of using SGA telephones to make thousands of dollars of personal long distance calls.
In all, voter registration campaign gathered less than 400 new registrants -- more than similar drives in the last three elections but far less than hoped for. And the two student-backed candidates are given little chance of winning.
In the view of city administrator Leon Shore, it was the strict requirement that they give up any other registration that most discouraged students from registering to vote.
"Most of them are pretty honest," says Shore who oversees the day to day runinng of the $2.5 million annual city budget for the basics of "trash, streets, and lights". "They won't perjure themselves, even if you offer them beer," he said.
Beer, the loud parties it fuels, and the outsiders as far away from Virginia that it attracts to College Park bars have been among the greatest sources of problems between residents and students in the past. Most longtime College Park residents say that the students, whose off-campus housing spills increasingly into the old Victorian neighborhoods, are generally good neighbors, though a few years ago, at the height of a local punk rock rage, Shore was forced to brick in part of the terrace outside his city hall office to keep out drunken revelers.
Students say that city attempts to limit off-campus housing, restrict parking next to favorite bars and gerrymandering of election districts add up to ignoring their rights as citizens. The city fathers say that they do care about the students, but that most of the problems that concern the youths are out of their control as a small city government swallowed up by county and state jurisdictions.
While the incumbent mayor, St. Clair Reeves, is backing the only student candidate in the race in hopes of knocking off a nagging opponent on the council, he says things are just fine between "town and gown" in the suburb of 13,000 permanent residents.
But he does concede students might be justified in their complaints with town officials, though not with him. "They're not talking about me," he says. "I get along with the students fine. I agree with the students 100 percent. The way some council people speak to them when they come down is disgraceful."