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Winter 2003

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Budding balloteer

If there’s a rise in student voting, as USA Today hopefully reported last fall, look no farther than Juan Martinez ’03 to see why. The government major from Queens, N.Y., has been energizing Skidmore voters since his sophomore year, working to establish a campus voting district and kindling a passion for politics—and all this among a demographic cohort famously disinclined to vote.
     “Registering to vote is not sexy,” Martinez admits with a wry smile. “It’s not like ‘Free Tibet’ or ‘End the death penalty.’ I mean, ‘Participate in your local government’?” Pause. “Doesn’t do it.”
Juan Martinez ’03 casts the first vote—at 7 a.m.—in the electronic voting booth he helped bring to the Skidmore campus.
     What does do it is hard work and charisma, says political comrade and Student Government Association president Andrew Kirshenbaum ’03. “Juan is witty and vocal and visible—and he can really work a room.”
     That’s what Martinez and a dozen student volunteers did at last fall’s elections, canvassing student residence halls, staffing information tables, and proselytizing at freshman orientation sessions. In an “off” election year, they registered some 300 new voters. (A Skidmore News story headlined “Students Pumped up to Vote” quoted a student who said, “I’m ecstatic. It’s a big election, and I’ve got to do my part.”)
     But it was in the fall of 2001 that Martinez really made his mark, in a crucial election for the five-member Saratoga Springs City Council. He organized meet-the-candidates nights and voter registration drives to get the most impact out of the city’s newest election district—Skidmore. (Students formerly belonged to a wider district with an off-campus polling place.) The new Skidmore district helped put two city Democrats in office, by a margin of less than 300 votes. “Juan delivered that election—he got the students out to vote,” says Beau Breslin, a Skidmore government professor who describes Martinez as tireless and “one of my all-time best students.”
     The Skidmore voting district made big news, especially when the city council’s Republican majority, stung by the students’ votes, moved (unsuccessfully) to redraw the election district and move its voting booth back off campus. That attempt only added fuel to this year’s election fire for Martinez, whose interest in politics was first ignited by former presidential candidate Bill Bradley. “He said something so good on NPR, I cut myself shaving,” laughs Martinez. “I checked out Bradley’s Web site, signed up, and wound up as campus coordinator for his campaign.”
     But mostly Martinez doesn’t sweat the national stuff. What he really cares about is local politics. “National elections, the death penalty, gun control, bad CEOs—we really can’t affect them. But on the local level, we can do a lot.” He routinely attends Saratoga’s city council meetings, keeping up with water-resource quandaries, open space projects, and development debates. “I can’t stand to get into something I can’t win,” he says, “but this is something I can touch, something I can affect.”
     American-born and of Cuban descent, Martinez is proud of his parents and relatives who immigrated to the U.S., started from scratch, and became successful professionals. At Skidmore he himself has co-founded a student activist club called Turn Left and worked for the campus Greens, the Saratoga Democrats, the local Legal Aid Society, and the college’s Integrity Board. Last spring he was honored with a Skidmore Presidents’ Day Award.
     And after Skidmore? He’s set on law school rather than running for office. In law, he says, “you can advocate and argue, and the success or failure of your case depends on the strength of your argument. In politics, you have to use arguments that will play, and justice can be lost in the middle.” But what if tempting political issues should arise— say, local issues? “Oh, sure,” he replies earnestly. “If the capacity for positive change is there, and I can make a difference, then yeah.”
     A friend once told him, “One day I’ll be at a party with you and you won’t talk politics.” Martinez grins. Hasn’t happened yet. —BAM

 


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