This is the first in a weekly series of stories about political involvement on local college campuses.
Glenn Rehn collects two things in bulk — organic dairy products and bumper stickers.
Both are perks of being a general merchandise stocker at Hy-Vee. The former is because he gets the chance to take home expired merchandise, and the latter because Rehn uses a serious chunk of his paycheck to buy buttons, stickers and rally signs bearing the American-flagged logo of a certain presidential campaign.
Last week, the MU junior got his first shipment: a collection of red-white-and-blue wearables that will be out of style in a few months, no matter the outcome on Election Day. Until then, his roughly $300 investment will be handed out for free to potential voters.
“I can always earn more money after the election, so I don’t see the point in saving it when I realize the number one priority this November is John Kerry’s victory,” Rehn says.
Rehn is a 21-year-old Illinois native who usually pads around campus in a pair of blue rubber flip-flops half-concealed by pants that barely hang on to his thin frame. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and his polo shirt with the collar turned up, its polyester knit tugged slightly out of shape by an ever-present accessory: his Kerry/Edwards lapel pin.
“Glenn is completely submerged in politics on campus. It is honestly impossible to think about politics at MU without thinking of Glenn,” says Scott Beauchamp, editor-in-chief of Prospectus, a liberal campus news magazine. Beauchamp and Rehn met one year ago while campaigning for Howard Dean.
Rehn has a sarcastic, sometimes offensive, sense of humor and a dry, monotone delivery that doesn’t translate well on paper. Take his business card: white with a hazy, romance-novel-ready photo of a single red rose next to the words, “Glenn Rehn, liberal Democrat.”
The media’s coverage of the election doesn’t suit Rehn’s taste. He dislikes the “young people issues” question, even though he’s dead serious about it.
“It is mildly offensive to say young people only care about college tuition, or the war in Iraq, or that they only care about the war in Iraq if there’s going to be a draft,” Rehn says. “It’s sort of like what a lot of Democrats say to other Democrats when they go into the South, ‘Make sure you only talk about economic populism.’ It’s mildly offensive to assume that people only care about little parts of their lives, instead of crafting a large, overarching message that appeals to everyone.”
That’s right — this college student cares about Social Security. He cares about Medicare. He cares about Israel and the Palestinians, Alan Greenspan, intelligence reform and the estate tax. And he thinks a lot of other college kids do, too, and if they don’t, well, he’s going to make them.
“He really pushes voter registration on people who aren’t registered and normally wouldn’t vote,” says Josh Sewell, another friend from the Dean campaign. Sewell says Rehn registered five Hy-Vee coworkers and is working on a “right-winger.”
It’s a mad rush to register the like-minded before the Oct. 6 deadline, and Rehn will take any vote, including his mother’s. She’s his biggest political coup to date — once a guaranteed Bush vote, she decided this summer to vote for Kerry.
“I know it’s because of me, and the fights I got into with (my father) all the time,” Rehn says. “He’s so far right and so antagonistic toward me I guess she saw the problems with his Republican ideology. I stayed calm — I mean, I was passionate, but I stayed calm and rational and strong while he would yell.”
Rehn moved his mom’s vote into the Kerry column, a shock to his dad.
“And he hates it — oh, he hates it,” Rehn says. “He gets mad at my mom on a personal level if she ever even talks about voting for Kerry. It’s like he thinks she’s complicit in raising his taxes.”
Strangers are not spared Rehn’s intensity. Most of his targets belong to the MTV vote, a group coveted by advertisers and mostly ignored by Congress, and he’s realistic about their likely turnout.
“We’re not going to get every young person out to vote,” Rehn says. “We’re not even going to get 50 percent. But we want to break the record, and we’re going to. We’re going to beat ’92.”
In 1992, the year Bill Clinton played the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” more than 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds showed up at the voting booths.
Here’s how Rehn plans to break the record: As vice president, he helps run MU’s College Democrats, writes editorials for local papers, organizes voter-registration drives, debates, does phone banking on weeknights and canvasses on weekends. He donates to the Democratic Party, individual candidates and political action committees. All this campaign volunteering comes at a cost besides the price tag on stickers and buttons. Volunteering takes time — lots of time.
Although he feels responsible for a less-than-stellar GPA in previous semesters, Rehn says that this year, fitting school into a schedule crowded by work and campaigning has been difficult.
“My plan is essentially to tread water until Nov. 3, and then buckle down,” he says.
He’s thought about his priorities and decided, “nothing is more important than the election.”
Friends say the campaign is Rehn’s obsession. Though politically active, not all of them are as involved, and they’re grilled for it.
“The first thing he says when he sees you — his pick-up line if you will — is, ‘Why didn’t you volunteer on Saturday?’ ” Sewell says.
Rehn’s apartment is decorated with rally signs and an autographed picture of the nominees and littered with old newspapers and voter-registration cards. Above the bathroom light switch sits a picture of him and Howard Dean, the candidate who inspired Rehn to work for change within the Democratic Party.
Election campaigns are expensive. John Kerry alone raised more than $233 million and will probably spend every penny by November. Rehn’s goal is similar: “to have $0 in my bank account.”
By the time the polls close, he should have nothing in his pockets but a few of his absurd floral business cards. It’s the kind of joke Rehn would appreciate.