CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Matt Tharp's family wasn't all that happy when he spent much of a weekend getaway reading Bob Woodward's "State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III."
Although Tharp, an MU student, comes from a conservative family deeply rooted in the state of Texas, he said he's been curious about and interested in politics since middle school. At 20, he's never voted for a presidential candidate. This year, however, he plans to vote for President Barack Obama twice: once as a Missouri delegate at the Democratic National Convention and once at the polls in November.
The convention kicked off Monday in Charlotte, N.C., and will conclude on Thursday, when Obama is scheduled to accept his nomination. Tharp is the youngest of six delegates representing Missouri's Ninth Congressional District.
Tharp lobbied hard for the opportunity to attend the convention. To become a delegate, one must first attend a county caucus and be selected to go to a congressional district caucus, where delegates are chosen. Those chosen at the district level also must attend the state Democratic convention.
A total of 58 Missouri delegates were elected to represent its congressional districts. Party leaders also attend the convention.
Some delegates clearly state their intention from the outset to go "all the way" to the national convention, while others do not, Tharp said. He sent a mailer touting his credentials and enthusiam to county delegates who seemed uninterested in the national convention.
The mailer focused on the facts that he is young, dedicated, involved, dependable, Democratic and "FIRED UP." Next to a portrait of Tharp wearing an Obama/Biden shirt was a personal letter explaining his background with the Obama campaign.
"Despite all of my campaign efforts, I was only 17 and not old enough to actually vote in the last Presidential election," the mailer reads. "Nothing would make me happier than being able to cast an additional vote for Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina this September. With your support, I know I can make this a reality."
Tradition suggests that delegates shouldn't attend two conventions in a row. That's a way of ensuring that more people get the opportunity, Tharp said. There are exceptions. Hilla "Dutch" Newman, 92, has attended most of the conventions, including this year's, since 1968.
Delegates get to tailor their convention experience by choosing which workshops and forums they want to attend. Tharp said he sent RSVPs to about 30 events. He was looking forward to attending a workshop hosted by the Stonewall Democrats, a Washington, D.C., group that focuses on LGBT rights.
As an openly gay voter, Tharp is closely following LGBT rights and the issue of gay marriage. He expects Democrats will approve marriage equality as part of the official Democratic party platform.
"It's kind of a motivator when people say hateful, uneducated, derogatory things …," Tharp said. "It makes you want to work really hard to ... get them out of office."
As a junior in high school, Tharp said, he was inspired by the Obama campaign's effort to target youth. He decided to volunteer with the campaign in St. Charles County, where he grew up.
Tharp chose MU to pursue his college education. Since then, he has served as president of the Mizzou College Democrats and as national committeeman for the Young Democrats of Missouri. He also works as finance director for the state Senate campaign of state Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia..
"The energy we see here (in Charlotte) is matched or exceeded in the state of Missouri," Tharp said. "We are excited to elect Democrats up and down the ticket."
Although Tharp has been involved with the Democratic Party since high school, he spends much of his time working in non-partisan arenas. Civics education is a topic he's fascinated with.
"There's more important things than partisan politics," Tharp said.
Tharp argued that civics lessons tend to be "gutted" from school curricula because it isn't a subject in which student achievement is monitored by standardized tests.
"Self-initiated civic education" is the term Tharp used to describe his own upbringing. He said that more young people probably would be involved in politics if schools would emphasize their importance.
Tharp founded the High School Youth Civic Education Initiative, a project of the Missouri College Republicans and the Young Democrats of Missouri, in an effort to promote better civics instruction and to drive youth voter registration. Members give talks in high school classes, familiarize students with sample ballots and provide outlets for students who choose to volunteer.
According to a 2010 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, fewer than one in five high school seniors could explain the benefits of citizen participation to the democratic system. Fewer than 30 percent were taught about voting or elections in class.
"College students are significantly more likely to vote than non-college students," Tharp said. "So there's a gap there, and that's a problem."
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