Foreign Student Receives Inside View of US Politics

Romanian recalls trek on the Bay State campaign trail

FOR foreign student Cristina Stefanouiu, working for two Massachusetts political campaigns this fall was a welcome break from her student activism back home in turbulent Romania. During her four-month stay here in the United States, Ms. Stefanouiu has studied, observed, and worked within the American electoral system with an Ohio-based program called Participation 2000. This year the program sent six other Eastern Europeans and 32 Americans to work for state and local campaigns across the US.

Participation 2000 was established by Gov. Richard Celeste (D) of Ohio in 1987 to get young, issue-oriented Democrats more involved in the election process. The program works like a political-action committee, only it donates people instead of money to Democratic candidates.

``The exciting thing about it is you get twice the bang for your buck,'' Governor Celeste says. ``You not only make a contribution to a Democratic candidate, but you train someone who can become a permanent resource in the political process.''

Participation 2000 supports mainly nontraditional candidates like women and minorities. Some key races where staffers were placed this fall included Harvey Gantt's US Senate race in North Carolina and Ann Richards's governor's race in Texas. Only five of the 35 different campaigns involved in the program were for incumbent candidates.

Foreign participants started in mid-July with a week of intensive training in Washington, D.C. They then joined the American students in Columbus, Ohio, for 10 days of training. All participants were then placed in their jobs as full-time campaign staff members. Participation 2000 provided them with a stipend for their campaign work.

Ms. Stefanouiu worked for Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Evelyn Murphy (D), who dropped out of the race before the primary. Then she worked as deputy press secretary for Campaign for Massachusetts' Future, a group fighting a statewide tax rollback. Stefanouiu says she was more at home working on an issue, however, than for a political candidate.

``The reason I was interested in an issue campaign was that it was something more [understandable] in Romania,'' the 23-year-old electronics student says. ``We don't have to deal with candidates as much.... People don't trust the candidates.''

She recalls the confusion during Romania's elections last May after the December overthrow of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Eighty-four parties were competing for office and people were suspicious of the candidates, she says.

As a student at the Polytechnical Institute in Bucharest, Stefanouiu says she was active in forming a nationwide student union, called National Independent Students' Union, that helped coordinate the many groups competing for student rights after the revolution.

During that time, she recalls many nights of violent street protest: ``It was even more scary than during the revolution because then at least ... you fought for freedom, you don't want Ceausescu anymore and his regime.''

But after the revolution, when she saw people demonstrating, she says she kept wondering, ``Who are you fighting against? Who are these people? What do they want?''

During her stay in Boston and Washington, Stefanouiu says she was impressed and disturbed by her observations of the US political system. She was impressed with the status of American women, for example, and women's groups like the National Organization for Women. But she was bothered by the pervasiveness of negative campaigning and the millions of dollars some candidates spent to get elected. She was also disturbed by what she sees as a lingering racism in American society. As an example, she points to the popularity of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who ran for US senator in Louisiana and drew more than 40 percent of the vote.

Participation 2000 officials say they hope to expand the program to include more students from different countries. Celeste also sees the need to educate more young people here in the US about the American electoral process.

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