At Rhodes College, political involvement goes beyond student body elections to encompass local, state, and national elections.
The Rhodes College Republicans, led this past year by seniors Rachel Harris and Ali Swee, are in a unique position, considering the size of the school. Explains Harris, “At a larger school, there would be separate clubs for each candidate, so a club for Ted Cruz, and a different club for Jeb Bush, and one for Marco Rubio. Because Rhodes is smaller, our goal is to give people the opportunities to get involved with any campaign that they feel best aligns with their views.” They then work with those campaigns to organize call-ins and other campaign engagement opportunities more specific to their candidate. The College Republicans also help organize debate watch parties with the College Democrats and the Department of Political Science. “Our goal is not only to help people get involved who are Republicans, but just help people get involved in the political process as a whole, regardless of their political leanings.” Looking ahead, the Rhodes College Republicans hope that the leadership of their group will be able to work alongside the Tennessee Republican Party to help move the club forward in this important election year.
The Rhodes College Democrats are just as excited for this coming fall. President Jolie-Grace Wareham ’17 says, “Our stated goal is to promote the platforms of the Democratic Party, but we also look to just engage people in the democratic process through sponsoring voter registration and information drives, connecting people to various campaigns, and even traveling to Iowa to canvas for the Clinton and Sanders campaigns.” Wareham emphasizes, “If you’re interested in politics at all, don't be afraid to get involved. It’s not just for people who want a political career; we are also connected to loads of young professionals throughout the city who just want to take pride in their country and the political process.” They recognize that they are still a young club—they have only been active in their current incarnation for two years—so their goal is to grow. This spring, Wareham and Brandon Johnson ’19, vice president of Rhodes College Democrats, attended the College Democrats of Tennessee convention in Nashville. There, Wareham was elected vice president of the state-wide organization and Johnson was elected director of minority affairs.
Outside of the on-campus groups, Rhodes students are involved in local politics. If you’re living in Memphis this November, chances are you might hear a knock on the door from a Rhodes student. These students will be working for Rincon Strategy Firm, a homegrown, Memphis-based political consulting group. Each election cycle, Rincon hires dozens of students to canvas the Memphis neighborhoods around Rhodes and beyond. Explains Baiza Cherinet ’18, who worked for Rincon as a canvasser last fall, “We would knock on doors with clipboards and literature about our candidates’ ideas, and remind people to register to vote and remain active in their districts.”
Rincon is a nonpartisan firm. They have consulted with Democrats, Republicans, and candidates for non-aligned positions. They work with Tennessee state representatives, U.S. representatives, and Memphis city council members, and have even advised Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign. When they canvas for their candidates, Rincon uses a statistic-based algorithm to determine where to target and how to best approach each house.
Rincon offers Rhodes students more opportunities than just seasonal canvassing. Junior Robert Brooks has been an intern for Rincon since last fall. His position as communications director gives him real-world experience working with news organizations throughout the state. A key part of his job is creating and distributing press releases. “For instance, we began working to help create a law to help the Lady Vols (of University Tennessee-Knoxville) keep their name after a decision that forced most of the sports teams (sans basketball) to change their name to the Volunteers. During the “Save the Lady Vols” campaign, I worked to share our press releases with the media.”
Despite a focus on communications, Brooks is called on to do almost anything for the firm. “Rincon is a small company,” he says, “with only three full-time employees. Especially around election time, all of us are drafted into any project that needs our help.” Brooks is one of six interns, all of whom go to Rhodes. Brooks worked for Rincon for Rhodes credit his first semester, and was then promoted to a paying position.
As the elections heat up this year, whether it’s working for local, state, or national campaigns, Rhodes students are sure to be involved in the political process.
By Sam Clark ’17