BY JON BERKON
Last weekend, approximately 140 Democratic law students from 33 law schools came to Harvard to serve as delegates at the first-ever convention of the National Democratic Law Students Council (NDLSC). The three-day convention marked the official launch for the law student arm of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The NDLSC will serve both as a broad association of Democratic law students and law student groups, as well as the student division of the National Lawyer’s Council (NLC), a DNC-based organization of Democratic lawyers focused on voting protection work.
The official purpose of the convention, however, encapsulates only a fraction of the excitement generated during the weekend. For the delegates, many of whom had worked extensively in Democratic politics, the convention offered an invaluable opportunity to swap war stories, exchange ideas, and forge crucial relationships with fellow political junkies.
“What was best about this weekend was meeting other people who are crazy about Democratic politics,” said Matt Bailey, a first-year law student from the Oklahoma City University School of Law, who was later elected as Vice President of Membership & Communications. “To be able to look to my left and to my right and strike up a conversation about Democratic politics and ideas is not something I can always do at school.”
A highlight of the weekend was DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s speech to the delegates on Saturday morning, which was billed as a discussion with law students about Gov. Dean’s vision for 2006 and 2008, and the role that law students can play.
The NDLSC was founded for two reasons. First, the 2000 and 2004 elections convinced leading Democrats that a permanent voter protection operation was essential to the party’s success. As a result, after November of 2004, lawyers who had been involved in the Kerry-Edwards campaign created the NLC. Given the key role law students had played in 2004, the leaders of the NLC wanted very much to ensure the participation of law students in this work moving forward. Second, while law student Democratic groups have officially fallen under the College Democrats of America (CDA), given that CDA has traditionally focused on undergraduates, there has often been a need for more support for Democratic groups on law school campuses. The NDLSC has stepped in to serve these functions.
Candidates for the executive board, including the newly-elected President, Sarah Resnick from Cardozo Law School, stressed these twin goals of voter protection and political participation in their appeals to delegates. The importance of the voting rights component was particularly reassuring to students who fought for voter protection in their previous careers as campaign operatives. “Having personally witnessed and fought vigorous efforts by the other side to disenfranchise voters, I’m encouraged by the desire to build long-term infrastructure to protect voting rights,” said James Katz, a 1L at Harvard, who has directed field efforts for presidential campaigns, 527 organizations, and labor unions.
On Saturday afternoon, delegates heard from Joe Sandler, General Counsel of the DNC, Anna Martinez, Executive Director of the NLC, and David Friedman, counsel to the President of the Massachusetts State Senate, about the voter protection work they will be asked to do in conjunction with the NLC. They cited four principal tasks, including conducting research on pending legislation impacting voting rights, ensuring the Secretary of State’s office was properly maintaining the voting rolls, and working to protect voting rights on Election Day itself. Taken together with a workshop earlier in the day, during which delegates shared ideas about how the NDLSC can help cultivate and sustain law school Democratic chapters, students learned the various ways they can be involved in the new NDLSC.
Starting a national organization certainly has its challenges. “Moving forward, there are still some basic tasks that remain to be done,” said David Burd, Harvard 3L, who played a key role in founding the NDLSC and co-chaired the convention with 2L Russ Anello. “We need to finish our first phase of outreach aimed at identifying every existing law school Democratic club, complete and launch our web site, and raise money.” The delegates also offered an array of fresh ideas, including regional caucuses to incorporate more students and training sessions. Despite the challenges, Burd is very optimistic. “Having such a great start at the Convention, the NDLSC is on course to succeed,” he said.
Given that many of the delegates worked in politics before attending law school, the convention predictably included an array of activities for political junkies. Aside from Dean, delegates heard from Congressman Michael Capuano of Somerville, campaign manager Steve Jarding, and a slew of representatives from various congressional and senatorial campaigns. “The speakers were inspirational and enthusiastic,” said Kelly Graves, an NYU law student. Students also received an exclusive briefing about DNC activities from high-level operatives and heard from Sarah Hurwitz, a Harvard Law grad and speechwriter for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, who discussed how to balance working on a presidential campaign while still attending law school.
But for the delegates, many who traveled across the country to attend the convention, meeting students with a similar passion for politics was the top attraction. In fact, Dean Elena Kagan stressed the importance of personal networking in her welcome speech, reminding students that those who succeed in politics “know people” as well as knowing “stuff.” Joelle Gotwals, a law student from the University of Minnesota, agreed. “The strongest force in any party is youth activism,” she said. “We are making the connections that will fuel the Democratic Party for years to come.” Delegates spent much of the weekend conversing between sessions over coffee, eating at local restaurants, and socializing at night. “I hadn’t counted on the incredible energy and enthusiasm of all the delegates,” said Anello, the convention co-chair. “I came away both inspired to get more involved in politics and equipped with the knowledge and contacts to make that a reality.”
As the students parted ways on Sunday, they resolved to stay in touch and to continue to build the nascent organization. “This was a great start,” proclaimed Grant Woodard, the President of the College Democrats of America and prospective law student. “I want to do a lot for the organization in the future.” Based on the success of the convention, NDLSC members agree that it promises to be an incredible development for both law students and voters.