UC students heat up debate ahead of vote

Rumor has it that Republicans at the UC Merced campus are organizing a counter-rally to the Obama rally planned by the "Democrats at UC Merced" club.

That will be Wednesday at noon — high traffic time on the campus.

But as the November election draws closer, students from various parties are getting along and enjoying the lively (sometimes competing) debate, student political leaders on campus said.

Nibal Halabi, president of Democrats at UC Merced, said he chats regularly with Bryant Ziemba, president of the College Republicans.

"In the long-term, we are trying to show that Democrats and Republicans can coexist with one another," he said. "Around election time, yeah, there are going to be competing rallies and events. But nationally and at the state, things aren’t getting done because of differences of beliefs — and we want to stop that."

Each of the political clubs on campus is relatively new, cropping up as the election season intensified.

Mike Fincher, a vice president of the College Republicans, said they’ve signed up more than 100 members since their club began about six weeks ago. Democrats at UC Merced was founded in mid-September and boasts about 125 members.

The two groups will face off in a debate on Oct. 23 at the campus. But that’s only the beginning of their activities.

The Democrats are planning trips to the nearby swing state of Nevada to campaign door-to-door the weekend before elections. Around 10 students are expected to make the trip, which is funded by the Obama campaign, Halabi said.

They will also be walking Merced’s neighborhoods.

"The main thing is to connect and interact with the community," Halabi said.

The California Young Democrats at UC Merced — not to be confused with Halabi's group — is just getting on its feet by going through the national organization's charter process, soon-to-be founder Ryan Heller said.

They have held two meetings, but aren’t yet recognized as an official group by the university.

Heller said there’s an atmosphere of excitement and engagement on the campus.

“People are definitely trying to make their voices heard,” he said. “When you wear a pin or shirt, it is going to start a conversation.”Of Halabi’s organization, he said: “As a Democrat, I think the more voices, the better. It is not a power struggle or a competition.”

Heller said his group will focus on education issues in politics in the weeks before the election.

Fincher and his group are planning a “Republican Coming Out Party” on campus.

“I have had people come up to me and say that Republicans are ‘evil people,’” Fincher said. “We find on campus that students who aren’t political don’t understand why political types hold the beliefs they do.”

The party is part of a larger “It’s OK to be Republican” campaign.

The College Republicans plan to hold several more activities on campus in the runup to election night and will also campaign locally for Jack Mobley, who’s running for Cathleen Galgiani’s Assembly seat.

To make sure all of their work doesn’t come to naught, several groups on campus are organizing voter registration campaigns. Student Body President Yaasha Sabba said between 400 and 500 students have been registered to vote so far at the campus.

“I am hugely proud,” Sabba said. “This is the most political involvement I have seen on campus in three years.”

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.