Just 13 days before the midterm elections, President Bill Clinton encouraged Stony Brook University students to vote and spoke on behalf of the Tim Bishop congressional re-election campaign at a rally organized by the Stony Brook College Democrats at the Staller Center on Wednesday, Oct. 22.
About 1,000 attendees filled the seats, including students as well as Bishop supporters holding signs that read “#1more 1 Million Votes for 2014,” as part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee message to increase voter engagement for the midterms.
Local politicians spoke on behalf of Bishop including, Suffolk County comptroller candidate James Gaughran, who is a Stony Brook almnus, Fifth District legislator and Stony Brook almuna Kara Hahn, presiding officer DuWayne Gregory, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and congressman Steve Israel.
Each guest praised Bishop for prioritizing a number of social and economic issues, such as student debt, raising the minimum wage, women’s health care rights, equal pay, the economy and the environment, and introduced multiple times as what is “at stake” in the upcoming elections.
“We have a great divide in our county today, a great divide between those who are fighting for middle class and working class families and those who are fighting for the most privileged among us,” Bellone said, reflecting the sentiment of the posters surrounding the podium on stage that read, “Restore the middle class.”
The crowd gave a standing ovation once Bishop, Israel and Clinton took the stage.
Israel spoke of contrasting ideas between the Democrats and Republicans of the House of Representatives. House Democrats, he said, believe that American businesses should get tax incentives to build infrastructure and create jobs, that college students should be able to refinance their debt and that women should not be paid less for equal work.
Student debt was a common theme at the rally, as Bishop said the future of student financial aid programs are “on the ballot this November,” along with the questions of whether Pell Grants and Perkins Loans would “drop considerably” or if interest rates would “skyrocket.”
Bishop said he was “proud” to represent Stony Brook University, which he described as the largest employer in the first congressional district with 18,000 employees. Bishop considers the university in the mantra he adopted for himself when he looks at public policy.
“The mantra is, ‘If it’s good for Stony Brook University, it’s good for Long Island and if it’s bad for Stony Brook University, it’s bad for Long Island,’” he said.
Clinton spoke of the Technology and Research Accelerating National Security and Future Economic Resiliency (TRANSFER) Act that Bishop and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced in June, “which would help to get more venture capital in to take the results of fruits of research at universities and turn it into commercially viable projects.”
In regards to the economy, Clinton said that when he became president, he wanted to reverse the trickle-down economics that began during the Reagan administration that made the country “more unequal.” The reversal, he said, helped people work their way from poverty into the middle class.
“America is coming back,” Clinton said, adding that the jobs lost in the financial crisis were replaced.
“This whole election is about the terms on which we will grow and whether we are going to grow together or grow apart.,” he said, later adding, “The biggest threat to our collective future today is the political dysfunction in Washington, fueled by big money, special interests and ideological extremism.”
Clinton, as the other speakers did, encouraged the crowd to vote, citing New York’s “lousy” voting record in midterm elections.
Students at the event said that although they went to see the former president, they also thought it was important for college students be involved in politics.
“I think the event went really well,” Fatoumata Kaba, a junior biology major, said. “I like how Tim Bishop was really great at speaking and I think Bill Clinton also had a good hand at presenting him as a good congressman.”
Patrick McKeown, a sophomore sustainabilities major and College Democrat, said that he went to the rally mostly to see Clinton, but also because he thinks it is important to be involved politically. He said it is important for students to go to political events and vote “because they have a voice and we have unique interests that have to represented.”
“[Voting is the] most important thing someone can do, especially involving congressional campaigns and local campaigns because it’s where you can see politics happen in the making”, Sage Davino, a junior sociology and global studies major and College Democrat at Hofstra University, said.
Robert Gargano, a junior English major, said he was impressed with Clinton because he had a “firm grasp” on what he said regarding policy and the “right mentality on what we need to move forward” for the future.
The rally stirred frustration among some students in regards to a Student Life email that circulated a Stony Brook College Democrats flyer for the rally and ticket information two days prior to the event, with the point being made that the university was in violation of federal election law and its own policy that prohibits the use of IT systems for endorsement of any political candidate or ballot.
“It’s disturbing that they consider a rally in support of a single candidate to be a ‘get out the vote’ initiative,” Stony Brook College Republicans President Laura Doukas, a junior business major, said in a press release she sent out. A group of Stony Brook students are in the process of filing complaints to the Federal Elections Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, according to Doukas.
“Because it was an activity sponsored by a club, they were free to use the same dissemination mechanisms that are used by any club holding an activity,” Elaine Crosson, Stony Brook’s Vice President for External Relations, said. The campaign for Lee Zeldin, Bishop’s Republican opponent, was notified of the rally and reminded them that if the student Republicans on campus wanted a rally on campus, they would be accommodated, she said.
“It was the organization’s flyer,” Media Relations Officer Lauren Sheprow said. “It was not a flyer created by anyone in Student Affairs.”
Senior political science major Kevin Gomez, who is also the president of the Stony Brook College Democrats, said that the group had asked Student Activities to send the flyer out to the campus community.
“It was a student-run event, we are a student organization, we are chartered by USG so we have the same amount of right to host an event like this as the College Republicans,” Gomez said. “It is my understanding that because I was the one who said, ‘Hey, we’d like to have President Clinton come for this event,’ I went through the right channels, I went to Student Activities, I alerted External Relations. Nowhere in any instance was it ever thought to be crossing any lines or breaking any laws.”
Correction: October 23, 2014
A previous version of this article stated that Laura Doukas is a senior majoring in business management. Doukas is currently a junior business major.