Photo by Austin Linfante
The middle of February was a better time than ever to get into presidential politics. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders recently upset former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Donald Trump won his first ever primary of the election season as well, winning the Republican primary in New Hampshire.
At the time, Ohio’s primary was a little over a month away, and winning the swing state was important for candidates in both parties. Every vote counted from every demographic, including the growing young adult and college student population. And in Baker University Center, the Ohio University College Democrats were trying to register every single eligible college student for the primary election.
Ever since the academic year started, the organization had been consistently holding voter registration drives for the over 27,000 students on the university’s Athens campus. It began by registering voters for the general election in November, when the biggest races in the off-year election were Athens Democrats running for mayoral and city council positions.
In preparation for Ohio’s presidential primary in May, the group came back even stronger with their registration drives. It was almost like it were canvassing every day or every other day.
At the head of it all was Jake Fenzl, the outgoing president of the OU College Democrats. He was one of the people sitting in front of a College Democrats table or holding a clipboard packed with voter registration forms. For Fenzl, this volunteer work was his greatest accomplishment with OU College Democrats.
“Even if I’m just a tiny cog in machine, I’m helping laying the grounds for whoever hopefully wins the presidency in November,” Fenzl said in the Bobcat Student Lounge about 50 feet away from the College Dems table. “It’s an experience because last (presidential) election, I was just a little volunteer among many other volunteers, and now I’m being able to be a leader in that.”
The OU College Dems holds a voter registration campaign for every election. This makes sense, as college-aged students have the lowest voter turnout of any demographic, according to the United States Census Bureau.
For Fenzl, the Democratic Party is a family matter. He’s able to remember the 2000 election when he was five years old.
Photo by Austin Linfante
“It was enough where I knew an election was happening and stuff like that. But I remember Bush v. Gore happening. I don’t remember specifics, but all I know is that we wanted the blue guy.”
When Fenzl came to Ohio University, he majored in history and had no real plan on supporting the Democratic Party other than voting for “the blue guy.”
“I had done theater in high school. I thought about getting involved in theater groups, but it didn’t seem as fun as it did back then,” Fenzl said.
He started attending OU College Democrats meetings early into his freshman year. It was in the middle of the 2012 presidential election, so a field organizer from President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign had one-on-one meetings with new volunteers.
“At the time, it was a guy named Nick Tool, and he always makes fun of me. I told him, ‘I’m not looking to get crazy involved. I just want some stuff to do on the side,” Fenzl said. “Obviously, this isn’t just a side thing for me anymore, and the rest is history.”
As other executive members on OU College Democrats would point to, Fenzl has been a committed part of the whole organization.
“I admire Jake a lot,” Sam Miller, the woman replacing Fenzl as College Democrats president next year, said after a meeting. “He really knows how to connect with people and get them excited with being involved. He’s really good with rallying people, and there’s been points in the year where it’s been hard to get members out to events, and Jake has done a great job at connecting with them and making them feel as welcome as possible.”
Photo by Austin Linfante
As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battle it out for the Democratic nomination, the OU College Democrats is staying neutral. Bobcats for Bernie founder Stu Adams is a major contributor to the organization, but Fenzl says Adams knows the position that College Dems is in. The group is even encouraged by the Ohio Democratic Party to coordinate events for both Clinton’s and Sanders’ campaigns, if need be.
“We can’t endorse because we’re representatives of the Ohio Democratic Party, and it’s a big no-no if we’re endorsing candidates,” Fenzl said.
As a result, OU College Dems didn’t endorse anyone in the presidential primary or the competitive 94th district race for the Ohio House of Representatives. Clinton ended up winning the state, although Sanders won Athens County. Sarah Grace defeated Eddie Smith in the district race.
After the voter registration deadline in Ohio passed, the College Dems were praised by the Ohio Democratic Party for winning a statewide competition to register the most voters on college campuses. They ended up registering “a noble amount” of voters, Fenzl said. He is always aiming higher, though.
“Ideally, I wish that could be 100 percent. I wish it could be 10, 20 thousand, and I wish that I could be the person that could pull off those kind of numbers,” Fenzl said.
Jake is keeping his options open for after he graduates, debating whether to start with an internship elsewhere or stay in Ohio and help the state party. No matter what he chooses, he knows he has a place in the Democratic Party.
“The sky’s the limit,” Fenzl said. “I’m at the point in my life where I can go wherever, but I do know that what I want to do the most right now is help out. And I think the Democratic Party does that. They’re doing their best to help people move up in the world and live a good life.”