Organization gets kids excited about politics

Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama may be wildly popular among young people in Chicago, but Mikva Challenge provides a forum for students on both sides of the aisle.

The nonpartisan organization works to get high school students involved in politics, emphasizing volunteerism, campaign activism and education of the issues. About 70 area schools and 5,000 students are currently involved in the program, which starts in the classroom and branches out to real-world political encounters.

For example, Mikva hosted some 240 high school students on Saturday at National-Louis University, 122 S. Michigan Ave., at an event to help them get to know the issues. Representatives for both Obama and Republican Arizona senator and GOP presidential candidate John McCain were present to speak to the students and answer questions.

One student, Denise Ford, 17, of Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Roseland, came away from the event more sure than ever that she's behind McCain.

"The reasons I support McCain are simple: national security, the economy, taxes and energy independence," Ford said.

However, there was no question that the vast majority of students here were behind Obama.

Just before the representatives' speeches, a large screen played some of the TV ads from the Obama and McCain camps, including the "celebrity" ad attacking Obama and a "More of the Same" economic piece denouncing McCain.

Boos reigned after the first ad and cheers erupted after the latter.

"I want Obama because he's for education reform," says Diana Franco, 17, of Thomas Kelly High School in Brighton Park.  "He's also thinking about the future in the long run, not just for his term, with issues like energy."

Brenan Smith, senior program director for Mikva Challenge, says that even though they're harder to find, more students support McCain than one might think.

The organization is named in honor of former White House counsel, judge and congressman Abner Mikva and his wife Zoe, a long-time education activist.

"There's this thought that students in Chicago are liberal, liberal, liberal - that's not true," Smith says. "Some identify themselves with conservative values. Others, when they really listen to the candidates, realize they're more Republican than they first thought."

State Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Countryside, spoke on behalf of McCain and Chicago Clerk Miguel del Valle spoke for Obama. After their speeches, both took questions on topics ranging from education and juvenile crime to the economy and gasoline prices.

When asked how McCain supporters can help with the campaign, Durkin conceded, "I wish I could tell you all to volunteer to help with the campaign here, but Barack Obama's from Illinois. it's going to be tough in Illinois."

Del Valle says about the event: "It's so great to see all of these young faces - on a Saturday. This is what democracy is about. It's about giving people - all people - an opportunity to connect to elect a president."

And that's what Mikva Challenge is all about, says Smith.

"Too often, politicians don't address students," she says.  "And there's a lot of issues facing young people in Chicago right now, education, murders, unemployment.  We believe students should be involved in the political process, especially today."

Smith says that although not every one of Mikva's students can vote, some 1,800 volunteered to be election judges, assisting voters at the polls on Nov. 4. Smith says that's the highest total in Mikva's 10-year history. Students will also help in other ways, she says.

Many are active on the campaign trail, volunteering or interning for a variety of local, state and national candidates. In the next few weeks, some will join Mikva on trips to battleground states, including Wisconsin and Michigan.

Students, regardless of party affiliation, have embraced Mikva.

"Many people don't have the chance to get involved in something like this," says John Ulloau, 17, of Thomas Kelly High School, an Obama supporter.  "It's something to be proud of."

"Mikva is pretty cool," added McCain supporter Zachary Moy, 17, of Whitney Magnet High School in the West Loop. "Free lunch, free breakfast and it helps people learn about the issues."