R’ World R’ Vote, a student coalition on campus dedicated to promoting political awareness and increasing voter participation, hosted a roundtable discussion about gender, race and religion in politics in the 2008 election campaign last Thursday.

The featured speakers hailed from different parts of the academic and political spectrum. They each offered a unique perspective on the upcoming election.

The speakers included Monroe County Legislator Jose Cruz, UR Associate Professor of Political Science and History Gerald Gamm, Professor of Political Science and faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Beloit College Georgia Duerst-Lahti and Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Cedric Johnson.

The evening began as juniors Scott Group and Yorda Yenenh introduced the speakers and asked them to talk briefly about their views on the current campaign.

Duerst-Lahti, who was billed as an “expert on women and gender politics,” spoke about the implications of Hillary Clinton’s gender.

“Is gender identity a part of this election?” she said. “The answer is absolutely yes.” Duerst-Lahti argued that masculinity has always been a part of candidates’ images, notably because the role of Commander-In-Chief of the military is considered strikingly masculine.

Duerst-Lahti spoke later about Clinton’s image manipulation.

“She seems more authentic when talking about how she is a woman, how she is comfortable in the kitchen,” Duerst-Lahti said. “But expect her to act with masculinity when the talk turns to the Commander-In-Chief.”

Duerst-Lahti said that Clinton has avoided a common dilemma for women politicians.

“Most press on women politicians focuses on hair, husbands and hem lines,” she said. Clinton has countered this by adopting a bland suit and keeping the same neutral hair style.

Cruz, a Latino who serves on the Monroe County legislator’s Human Services and Agenda Charter Committees, discussed the Latino community’s place in this election, specifically the candidates’ demonizing of the community.

“Immigration is being put into the same sentence as terrorism,” Cruz said. He said that politicians are downplaying Latinos’ impact on the country and that the political system’s determination to stifle the Latino vote is going to backfire.

“[Latinos] will have a tremendous influence on the 2012 election on national and local levels,” he said. He stressed that the community needs to stay involved.

Gamm, who sits as chair of the Political Science Department, spoke next about the diversity of this year’s candidates.

“Besides Kennedy, we have always had a white, Protestant, male president,” he said, blaming long-term bigotry. This year the Democrats offer a woman, an African American and a Latino candidate.

“With the Republicans, you have a bunch of middle-aged white guys,” Gamm said.

Gamm questioned how we are going to handle a Mormon candidate and a woman frontrunner.

“These questions have never come up before,” he said. “We’re going to see different types of bigotry, different kinds of uncomfortableness.”

Gamm said the election will come down to the question of descriptive versus substantive representation; that is, whether voters will support candidates who look like them or who share their political views.

Finally, Johnson, who wrote a dissertation on black power politics, spoke about issues surrounding African Americans in the election.

He agreed with Gamm that voters should focus on ideas, not looks.

“Barack Obama is not saying anything that much different from other candidates,” Johnson said. “His race is more symbolic.”

Johnson argued that it is possible to have a candidate who looks like his constituency but does not share their opinions on key issues.

“We need to disentangle identity and interest,” Johnson said. He argued later that despite Obama’s Draconian measures on crime in the past and willingness to build more jails, African Americans focus only on what he represents.

Yenenh wrote later in an e-mail that members of R’ World R’ Vote believed the event was successful.

“The attendance was significant and we feel that each of the individuals present was very interested in learning of the work and input from the [other] panelists,” Yenenh said. “Each panelist had a different perspective to share on various topics including race, gender, politics and so much more.”

R’ World R’ Vote was also involved in bringing the Project Vote Smart Bus to campus. According to Rochester Center for Community Leadership Americorps*VISTA Coordinator of Community Service Jenna Bower, co-sponsors included the Women’s Caucus and the Undergraduate Council for Gender and Women’s Studies. The traveling bus is a promotion for Project Vote Smart, a non-partisan organization that collects information on over 40,000 local and national candidates.

“We had over 300 students stop by and get information about [PVS],” Bower said.

Wrobel is a member of the class of 2010.

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