Westminster College students chose Elizabeth Warren, senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, as their Democratic nominee for U.S. president during the college’s 2019 Democratic Mock Convention.
More than 250 students cheered, waved flags, sported buttons and dressed in symbolic costumes Wednesday at the event that only happens on campus every four years, preceding a U.S. presidential election year.
When Warren was announced as the students’ choice nominee, blue and white confetti was shot from cannons, students made human waves in their seats, arms flew up in the air and cheers and whistles were deafening.
The decision was final after two rounds of voting by students who had signed up in advance to be delegates at the convention. Another contingency, touring as a class in London, was watching the mock election via live stream, and they, too, had a chance to vote from the slate of four candidates via social media.
The other candidates on the slate were former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The students nominated Westminster political science professor Dr. Shannon Smithy as their Democratic vice presidential candidate.
The convention opened Tuesday evening in Orr Auditorium with an address by Martin O’Malley, former Democratic Maryland governor and 2016 presidential candidate.
Staged Wednesday as a forum in the college field house, 15 student delegates participated in a debate at 3 p.m. on four platform issues — affordable health care, women’s reproductive health and abortion, higher education and student debt and prison reform.
Brian Whetzel of Grove City, a junior political science major, played the role of campaign manager for Warren. He explained before the evening session that the student delegates were split into geographic regions, from the northeastern United States to the Pacific West. The students dressed in costumes represented each region, he said, and the different regions voted from the slate.
“We’ve been planning this since last spring semester,” Whetzel said. “We’ve been trying to raise the spirit and get students excited and signed up to come to this.”
Seventeen students, most of them political science majors, served on the planning committee, which was chaired by Ian Ross of San Diego, California, a senior political science major.
Dr. James Rhoads, chairman of Westminster’s political science department, acted as their adviser.
“The convention is one of the reasons why I’m here at this college,” Ross said. He said that when picking a college, he looked at what activities Westminster had to offer, and he was intrigued by the prospect of the mock convention.
“You have to register for the class, parts I and II,” he explained. “Then we establish roles.”
He believes he was chosen as chairman because of his background in organizing other similar civic events.
“It takes a lot of work, and everyone in the class did a great job,” Ross said, “but the biggest challenge was getting kids to attend. We’re in an era of politics that’s pretty divisive right now.”
He noted that more than 640 students registered for the convention — that’s close to half of the student body.
But only about half of the chairs in the field house were filled when it came down to the voting session.
“We have the second-oldest mock convention in the country,” Whetzel said, “and it’s been going on since 1936.” It was started by the late Thomas V. Mansell, a prominent New Wilmington attorney and former professor at Westminster.
The only it wasn’t held was in 1944, when World War II started.
The convention focuses on a nominee who represents the opposite the party that is occupying the White House.
“It’s a great tradition we have going on,” said Joseph Pisano of Grove City, a sophomore political science major. He and Whetzel explained that because the student convention takes place only every four years, there are all new students to stage it each time.
The delegates are chosen by who is leading at the polls, Whetzel said.
Pisano pointed out that Biden was the key speaker at Westminster’s mock convention in 1984.
“Now, 30 years later, he’s still going,” he said.
Neshannock Township resident Meg McCarthy, a senior business administration major at Westminster, attended the mock convention dressed like a hippie as a region leader.
“My job is to get everyone hyped up for the section we’re in,” she said. She also was responsible for setting up the vote counting for her section.
“Everyone is having fun,” she said. “It’s my first one, so I was pretty excited.”
This was the seventh mock convention that Rhoads has participated in. His first was in 1996.
“It gets students involved, and it’s important, more today than ever, that people become involved in politics,” he said. “It also brings them out of the comfort zone for a little bit. It’s a great educational experience.”
He sees having “to reinvent the wheel” every four years, with an all new group of students hosting the convention, as the biggest challenge.
“A group of students come in and plan it all,” he said. “I’m just here for advice.”