In anticipation of the upcoming Harris County general election on Nov. 4, the Rice University Young Democrats hosted the first annual “Local Politics and Houston’s Future: Rice in Houston” panelist discussion on Oct. 15. Held in the Herring Hall auditorium, the event featured seven politicians, candidates and a mix of incumbents, who addressed this election season’s major issues.
The panel consisted of State Representative Gene Wu of District 137 running for reelection; Judith Snively for Harris County District Clerk; Kim Ogg for Harris County District Attorney; David Rosen for Harris County Treasurer; James Cargas for U.S. Congressman, 7th Congressional District; Judge Steven Kirkland for Judge of the 113th District Court; and Houston city councilwoman Ellen Cohen. Stephen Klineberg, Rice Professor of Sociology and Co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, moderated the event.
Much of the discussion focused on the issues surrounding Houston’s rapidly changing demographics.
Cargas said there is a pressing need to approve previously-blocked funding for projects, like the expansion of Houston’s Light Rail Transit system, which would address population growth.
“2.3 cents of the nine cent federal gas tax goes to public transport,” Cargas said. “But it’s going to Dallas and Atlanta, not Houston.”
Size is not the only issue. Given Houston’s growing immigrant population, the panelists said diversity and equality are also at the forefront of this election. Wu said there is a rise in poor immigrant students suffering from a significant disparity in the quality of public education. His campaign focuses on increasing prekindergarten funding for low-income school districts and reducing the education gap that places these children at an early disadvantage.
“The state is changing from middle class, suburban, community neighborhoods to an immigrant, brown state,” Wu said. “How do we maintain the American dream for everyone?”
But among all the issues referenced, the panelists said one of the most important issues today’s young voters face is not one that will appear on the ballot.
“Simple,” Cohen said. “Voter apathy.”
According to the panelists, the reason for voter apathy is not that voting has lost its importance.
“A lot of races have been won by one vote,” Cohen said.
Ogg said she agreed with Cohen, emphasizing that voters have something to gain from participating in the democratic process.
“It is the way the democracy works,” Ogg said. “Policy has more impact on you on a daily basis than the law itself.”
The panelists said voter apathy is a cultural phenomenon. According to Snively, the change is a result of the technology-oriented lifestyle of the younger generations.
“No one wants to be a part of a jury panel,” Snively said. “There’s no app for it.”
Wu said voter apathy is the result of a lack of proper education. According to Wu, the school system has long since discontinued civics requirements, and people are left without an understanding of processes such as policy making.
“Why isn’t this auditorium filled?” Wu asked. “We just don’t teach civics anymore.”
Cohen said openness between government and its citizens is a step in the right direction. According to Cohen, however, the solution must come from within the populace itself, especially young, energetic students.
“We would kill for volunteers, particularly from Rice,” Cohen said. “It really does help you to see how it all works.”
Cargas said while volunteering is not for everyone, unless all students reach out to local government and be passionate about the issues, the system will simply fail.
“[Students] have to do a better job of getting beyond headlines,” Cargas said. “There are reasons why you want government around and you should try to access them. We respond to people who respond to us.”
Young Democrats President Clara Roberts said she was enthusiastic that many local candidates were willing to take time to come talk with students.
“It was definitely logistically challenging to organize and execute,” Roberts, a Duncan College senior, said. “But I think it’s important to give students the opportunity to interact with the people who represent them and their neighbors, and for candidates and representatives to meet and speak with students.”