By James Butler and Doug Newman
On October 27, former President Bill Clinton brought a much-needed dose of political enthusiasm to Stony Brook University. Speaking on behalf of Congressman Tim Bishop’s re-election campaign against Republican challenger Randy Altschuler, Clinton urged students to remember to vote on Tuesday for the incumbent Democratic congressman.
Approximately 2,500 people, most of them students, attended the rally, an impressive turnout considering there was barely 24 hours between the formal announcement of the event and the start of the event itself. The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Clinton and pro-Democrat, and the speeches of both the former president and our current congressman were very warmly received.
There was a contingent of Stony Brook Tea Party members and College Republicans outside the rally with “Dump Bishop” signs, yelling anti-Bishop rhetoric and attempting to cause a scene, but the event proceeded smoothly. Clinton himself acknowledged the presence of these protestors, and made a novel argument: According to Clinton, his administration offered more of what the Tea Party wants — jobs, balanced budgets and smaller government — than the Republican administrations that have governed for 20 of the past 30 years.
Clinton and Bishop also played to the audience’s concerns about higher education. Talking about recently passed student loan reform, Bishop said he “had a very, very large role in writing that legislation,” and pointed out that his opponent would vote to repeal it.
According to Clinton, the same legislation “revolutionized the way student loans work,” and “no one will ever have to drop out of college again” thanks to a provision allowing student loans to be paid back as a fixed percentage of a person’s income.
The bill itself removed $60 billion in federal subsidies to private student-loan companies, and turned it into $40 billion in direct financial aid while reducing the deficit by the remaining $20 billion
The president also drew attention to the congressman’s former career as a lifelong educator and administrator at Southampton College, concluding that this experience in the field of higher education makes Bishop keenly aware of the struggles college students face every day.
The closure of Southampton was unexpectedly turned into a campaign issue by Altschuler, who attacked Bishop during their televised debate on News 12 for being responsible for the closure of the campus as its own residential college. Bishop defended his record on Southampton, and touted his ability to keep the campus open while he worked there for almost three decades.
“My opponent is saying that I’m the one that drove it into bankruptcy. It’s simply not true,” said Bishop after his appearance on stage.
“Frankly, I think the fact that two years after I left the decision was made to sell it says that I and a very dedicated group of faculty and staff kept it alive all those years.”
The event was clearly aimed at combating the “enthusiasm gap” among prospective Democratic voters that pundits have been talking about for months, and especially to convince young voters who came out in force for President Obama in 2008 to vote again this year.
According to Bishop’s campaign, it chose Stony Brook as a venue for the event because it is “a large, fairly liberal campus with the right facilities. Also, Tim has a lot of fans here because of the 1000 jobs he created” at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which is co-managed by the university.
Clinton emphasized that polls that show Republicans winning back the House are based on a massive drop-off in voters under 35, and that a better youth turnout could change the results entirely. Clinton said that students are “committing malpractice for your own [futures] if you don’t vote … the whole future of this country and your personal futures could depend on this.
“Any young person who does not vote is playing Russian roulette with their own future,” he said.
President Clinton’s appearance will almost certainly have some effect, however marginal, on the outcome of the election.
“I definitely feel more inclined to vote now,” said Jerry Schofield, a junior at Stony Brook. “I thought Clinton’s speech would be a two- or five-minute blurb. He didn’t talk down to us, and the speech was well-tailored to the audience.”
What remains to be seen is if Clinton’s rallying call to the young people of America will be enough to help Tim Bishop survive a difficult reelection campaign against a well-funded Republican challenger. Clinton and Bishop both noted that there were some 2,500 registered voters on campus, a number larger than the margin by which Bishop first won election in 2002. Bishop says he “[needs] every one of those … votes.”
Trevor Christian and Rachel Clark contributed reporting to this story.
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