Sitting across from Del. Timothy D. Hugo in his sunny office on Monday, George Mason University student body President Sarah Godlewski made her best pitch.
Her generation has become so disengaged in politics it's embarrassing, the 22-year-old senior told the legislator. He could help, she said, by supporting a bill that would allow Virginians to request absentee ballots online. Making it easier for Internet-savvy young people to become voters might boost their participation.
"I'm worried about my generation," she concluded.
"Hello, congresswoman," Hugo (R-Fairfax) responded. "I'm worried you're going to move into my district."
Godlewski has been to Richmond in previous years to ask for more money for her school. But this year, for the first time, she is lobbying for specific bills, with data and anecdotes from students statewide to back up her positions. That's because this year, she is part of Virginia21, a new lobby led by an energetic 23-year-old executive director and some big names in Virginia business.
Like Rock the Vote and other splashy efforts targeting young people, Virginia21 wants to increase their numbers at polling places. But director Jesse F. Ferguson, who graduated from the College of William and Mary in May, said such groups sometimes "miss the boat" when they try to convince young people that good citizens vote.
"How many middle-aged men vote to be good citizens?" he asked. "They vote because of property taxes and education and the things that are important to them. Eighteen- to 24-year-olds are the same way."
That's where Virginia21 comes in, he said, describing it as a kind of AARP for the student generation. Like AARP, it is meant to be nonpartisan but definitely political and engaged on issues beyond the November elections -- in this case, the economy and funding for state colleges.
"If you ask any 18- to 24-year-olds, 'What do you care about?' they'll say, 'Education and having a job.' That's where our agenda is," Ferguson said.
Studies suggest that student involvement in politics hit an all-time low in 2000 but has shown signs of resurgence since. In 2000, 28 percent of respondents in an annual University of California at Los Angeles survey of 250,000 college freshmen said it was essential or very important that they keep up with politics. Last fall, that number climbed to 33.9 percent. In 2000, 16.4 percent of the students surveyed said they frequently discussed politics. Now, 22.5 percent say they do.
"What gets young people involved is what gets other people involved," said William A. Galston, a professor who studies civic engagement at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs. "You have to care, you have to find a vehicle for your participation, and you have to believe that your participation will be effective."
James E. Ukrop, head of a grocery store chain in the Richmond region and Virginia21's first big backer, said he hopes the group can become that vehicle for the commonwealth's young people.
Impressed by a political action committee that Ferguson and other William and Mary students formed to help pass the statewide higher education bond referendum proposal in 2002, Ukrop decided to meet with the students last spring to talk about enlarging their efforts.
"These kids are geared up. They're smart. They're bright. . . . They can get people to vote," he said.
With Ukrop's support, Ferguson and a cadre of other students wrote bylaws and a mission statement and enlisted the help of student body presidents of Virginia's other public colleges and universities, all of whom now sit on the group's steering committee.
By August, Ferguson was hired full time to lead the group. He spent the next three months on the road, meeting with about 75 legislators and business leaders to spread the word. He visited just about every public college in the state and put so many miles on his 1990 Nissan Maxima that it has been in the shop most of the time since.
On his travels, he raised about $100,000 for the group, plenty to open a Richmond office, maintain a robust Web site and pay his salary -- which he would described only as "a living wage." ("The online presence costs more than I do," he joked.)
One of those Ferguson visited was Jay S. Poole, vice president of the Altria Group, parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris. Poole said it is unfortunate that few college students today grew up talking politics around the kitchen table as he did. Impressed by Ferguson's visit, Poole agreed to contribute and serve on Virginia 21's board.
"I was an easy sell," he said.
In December, the group announced its arrival in Richmond with a bit of classic political theater. Ferguson and his campus allies organized an "e-storm the capital" campaign, soliciting 12,500 signatures on an online petition asking for more money for higher education. The signatures were printed and delivered to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) in cardboard boxes -- eleven in all.
In addition to the absentee ballot initiative, the group advocates a measure that would increase student financial aid by $16 million over the next two years, an amount it argues would only keep pace with anticipated tuition increases. Ferguson persuaded the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), usually known for fiscal conservatism, to sponsor the bill.
Ferguson said he hopes students will benefit from his presence at the General Assembly, where he can update the group's Web site daily with news from the capital.
He has been a constant presence, roaming the legislative hallways and speaking before committees, said H. Benson Dendy III, a Richmond lobbyist who represents Abbott Laboratories, GlaxoSmithKline and the Sentara hospital system, among other big companies.
"Someone said once that showing up is half the job, half of winning. They are there, and they are obvious. I see them every day, several times a day," Dendy said.
Last week, Virginia21 hosted a reception for legislators, standard practice for Richmond groups that hope to shape policy. Ferguson estimates that 175 people attended, including legislators and many of their young aides and interns. Even Warner stopped by.
"This is a great organization," the governor said as he shook hands at the party. "It shows that young people want to be involved in the political process. I'm glad to have their engagement -- we're fighting the same battle."
Dendy said the group probably will suffer some legislative defeats, possibly this year as it fights for increased funding for Virginia's colleges even as the General Assembly debates spending cuts. "They've chosen a very tough issue in a tough year," he said.
But he said that in his more than 30 years in town, he has never seen another lobbying group -- aimed at any age group -- make an entrance similar to Virginia21's.
On Monday, the absentee ballot bill that Godlewski was pitching passed the Senate. On Friday, despite opposition from the state's registrars, who fear the possibility of fraud, the bill passed a close committee vote in the House as well, setting up a floor vote this week. Hugo ended up voting against it, based on the registrars' complaints, but said he was excited to see young people win the vote after working so hard.
Ferguson said Friday's vote is only a sign of things to come.
"You can tell there is a general understanding from a lot of members of the General Assembly," he said, "that there's a new voice in town."