Two Pitt students run political office

By Gwenn Barney

Fourteenth Ward Congress hopeful Jason Bennett’s greatest campaign contributor is… Fourteenth Ward Congress hopeful Jason Bennett’s greatest campaign contributor is sophomore David Williamson.

Williamson has donated exactly five pennies, six pens and two pieces of paper.

“It was a zero-planning campaign,” Bennett, a 25-year-old Pitt student majoring in material science and engineering, said with a wide smile.

While Bennett works his shoestring campaign, across campus, grad student Daniel Jimenez, 28, has spent his weeks sacrificing sleep for a better chance at winning a position on the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee — even while working on his doctoral degree in neuroscience.

In the week before the endorsement elections, Jimenez managed to get between three and six hours of sleep per night. He’s currently juggling his role as president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, writing a dissertation and campaigning for a position on the State Democratic Committee.

“I’m not good at balancing,” Jimenez said. “I mean it’s hard.”

Though these two men are running very different campaigns, they both have the same goal — to see their name on the Pennsylvania primary ballot on May 18.

“Students very occasionally run for lower-level offices,” Pitt political science professor David Barker said. “They very rarely win.”

Barker noted that even former President Bill Clinton didn’t win when he ran for an Arkansas seat in the U.S. House of Representatives at the age of 28 in 1974.

But these challenges have not discouraged either Bennett or Jimenez from taking their stakes in the political process.

From brains to ballots

Jimenez’s interest in politics began last year, when he ran for and won the presidency of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.

However, it was not until the recent student tax controversy that he decided to take the next step and tackle state politics.

Jimenez began to speak at various debates on the student tax issue on behalf of the organization in December. During these events he met several campaign managers who informed him about position openings in the upcoming elections.

“I started seeing where the [political] opportunities were,” he said.

One of those opportunities was a position as an elected official on the State Democratic Committee.

Five elected members of the State Democratic Committee meet three times a year to discuss political issues in Pennsylvania. During their winter meeting they vote on which Democrat state candidates they will endorse in the next election for the positions of U.S. senator, governor, and lieutenant governor. The position is a volunteer job. If Jimenez wins, he will actually need to pay his own way for transportation and accommodations during the meetings.

“It’s pretty obscure,” Jimenez said of the position. “Some County [Democratic] Committee members don’t even know what State Committee is.”

Jimenez said he still feels determined to run a strong race. He has collected 243 signatures on his petition for placement on the ballot — far more than the 100 signatures required.

He spent about 20 hours knocking on doors in various communities of the 38th District of Pennsylvania — which includes parts of Allegheny County — to collect the signatures from residents of the district he hopes to represent. Jimenez said he plans to knock on more doors as the election grows nearer, this time to lobby for people’s votes.

Jimenez is running on a platform primarily of improving job opportunities in the city and diversifying politics.

The election has not been easy for Jimenez to balance with his other time commitments. He has already determined he will need to push back the completion of his dissertation on neurobiology six months.

However, Jimenez is not disheartened by this turn of events.

“It’s fun,” Jimenez said of balancing his extracurricular schedule, “It’s not monotonous. It’s always engaging. Everything’s rewarding, so it’s not frustrating.

Most recently, Jimenez has focused his attention on achieving an endorsement from the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. On March 7, the ACDC chose five of the seven candidates running for the position to endorse.

“I was up until 3:30 last night addressing envelopes to the committee members,” Jimenez said of his efforts to win the endorsement. He had also personally called all 536 members of the ACDC, to introduce himself and ask for their vote. In total, Jimenez spent around 30 hours making these phone calls.

In the end, his hard work paid off, as Jimenez was awarded an endorsement. He was the highest male vote-getter at the endorsement meeting with 177 votes and earned 43 votes more than the next closest male candidate. This victory means that his name will be on the mailing of recommended candidates sent out by the ACDC, something that will give a strong boost to his campaign.

With the endorsement in hand, Jimenez has shifted his focus to the primary elections. “It will be tough,” he said, “but I would love to be the top male vote-getter.”

Still, his primary goal is to help educate others about the election process. “It doesn’t matter if I win,” Jimenez said. “The best thing that can come out of all this is other students becoming more educated about the election process,”

Engineering an Election

The plan was simple enough. Pitt student Jason Bennett was going to challenge and defeat incumbent congressman Mike Doyle, D-14th Ward, which covers Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Swisshelm Park and Regent Square, in the upcoming primary election. He just had to get on the ballot first.

“We were running statistics on various canvassing techniques,” Bennett said. “We looked at lists of registered Democratic voters.” And then Bennett and his campaign team went door to door trying to acquire the 1,000 signatures needed by March 9 for this prospective materials engineer turned campaign engineer to be put on the primaries ballot. “It’s a good experience because people were overall supportive about the idea of having someone else run,” Bennett said of his door-to-door canvassing.

Bennett also experienced some pretty special moments on the campaign trail. At one house, a recently naturalized citizen answered the door. She told Bennett that in 2006 a person had canvassed her house with a similar goal of running in the primary elections, but at the time she was not a U.S. citizen and could not sign the man’s petition. She appreciated that Bennett had taken the time to stop by so that she could now participate in the campaign process as an American.

Bennett’s interest in running for congress began this past fall when he was joking around with a co-worker during a cooperative internship at General Electric. “I told him maybe I should run as a joke,” Bennett said. “But he told me, ‘If you’re going to do it, take it seriously.’” And that’s just what Bennett did.

Though registering Independent before the election, Bennett made the switch to the Democrat Party so that he could run against Doyle. “I don’t associate myself with a party,” Bennett said. His campaign team represents that theme. Democrats, Republicans, Independents and a Socialist, Carl Pjader, have all joined Bennett’s campaign. All the members of Bennett’s campaign team are volunteers and most are Pitt students.

In addition to canvassing Bennett and his team also tabled in the lobby of the Litchfield Towers several times as part of their campaign plan. Freshman Andrew Mozdy, Bennett’s chief of staff admitted that the student response was not strong. “We would’ve tried to build up more of a student base,” Mozdy said of possible campaign improvements.

Despite the efforts of the Bennett campaign team, it failed to achieve the 1,000 signatures necessary to make it on to the ballot. He ended his campaign with just over 300 signatures. “We’re kind of shutting down now,” Bennett said. “The best I can do would be to inspire other people to be politically active.” In spite of this defeat, Bennett has no regrets about his attempted run. “Without experience,” he said, “there wasn’t much else I could have done.”

Voters can still add Bennett as a write-in candidate.

Bennett plans to build an informational website, using lessons he has learned from his bid for congress, to help others who plan to run for political positions. He also hopes that in the next primary election he can coach another prospective candidate — this time to victory.