Dem. Senate hopeful leads student forum

Last Wednesday evening, the Williams College Democrats welcomed Democratic Senate hopeful Alan Khazei of Massachusetts to Paresky. Khazei conducted an hour-long forum with a group of around 30 students, predominantly members of the Williams College Democrats. Khazei is one in a field of seven vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination to challenge the state’s incumbent senator, Scott Brown, in the 2012 election.

Khazei, a graduate of Harvard Law School, is a community organizer from the Boston area. He is responsible for co-founding City Year, a non-profit organization that helps 17- to 24-year-olds find community service in inner cities. City Year served as the model for AmeriCorps, a federally funded volunteer service championed by President Bill Clinton, that works with over 85,000 volunteers annually.

Khazei is also the founder and CEO of Be the Change, Inc., an organization that brings together non-profits, social entrepreneurs, civilians and policymakers to coordinate national issue campaigns.

Khazei opened the forum by emphasizing the role of young people in influencing the outcomes of political elections. “I don’t think you’re the leaders of the future,” Khazei opened. “I think you’re leaders right now … With your energy, idealism and commitment, you can elect and replace a senator.”

Khazei emphasized throughout the event that his ability to organize the community and build coalitions would facilitate his success in the Senate. “I decided to make the shift from service to policy when the Republicans tried to end AmeriCorps [in 2003],” Khazei said. To save the program, Khazei turned in countless hours attempting to recruit Republicans to support the service organization. After convincing then-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to campaign with him, Khazei finally made progress.

“I went to Congress and told them, ‘This works. We’re putting in $60 billion. Put in your part,’” Khazei said. After Khazei’s efforts, President George W. Bush approved a 50 percent funding increase for the program.

As a community organizer, Khazei believes that he has better ideas than his politician opponents on how to pass effective legislation in Washington. “I have a different strategy for the Senate that’s not stuck in the Washington bubble,” Khazei said. “As an activist, as an organizer, I find the people on the ground and take things to scale. I haven’t been in politics my whole life, so I have an attitude that [the Senate] should be about you, about us, not special interests.”

Khazei identified five main points in his platform that he believes distinguish him from the field. His primary focus in the Senate would be on unemployment. He proposed a voucher system in which people who have been unemployed for 15 weeks could continue receiving unemployment benefits after finding a job in order to reduce the costs of hiring to an employer.

“We have to give unemployed people a leg up with 21st-century thinking,” Khazei said to the audience.

The Senate hopeful would also seek to reform public education. “We need to create a system of lifelong learning,” Khazei said. “We need better access to higher education, and we need to be working harder in inner city schools.”

As a social entrepreneur, Khazei is acutely aware of the struggles of the impoverished. “Over 26 million people in the U.S. live in poverty,” Khazei said. “We’re the richest country in the history of the world, even with our [current] economy. We have to live up to ‘justice for all.’” Khazei advocated using local-level solutions to poverty, such as small-scale food banks and public works organizations, by expanding these programs to a national scale.

Further, Khazei is interested in political reform and transparency in tax revenue allocation. He has chosen not to accept special interest money for his campaign in order to keep his accountability solely to his constituents. “I’m relying on shoe leather, volunteers and citizens,” Khazei said. “I am accountable to nobody but you.”

The Democrat also stressed his interest in building bipartisan coalitions in the Senate. “You have to get Republicans with you, so you have to win Republican constituencies,” Khazei said. “You have to find some allies who have sway with the Republicans and begin to pick off Republicans.”

While Khazei is hopeful that he will receive the party’s nomination, he recognizes that his campaign will be heavily dependent on volunteers and the support of young people. “I’m an underdog, but I’m the candidate of the citizens,” Khazei said. “I want you to live up to what I know you can make happen. We may not be the best funded or the best known, but we can have the best volunteers. We can reclaim the true America that we all know exists.”