BY JOE BERKON
In early September, nearly fifty students from the Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School convened in Hauser Hall to hear from Patrick Murphy, a then-obscure Democratic challenger for Congress. The 33-year old Iraq war veteran, competing for a congressional seat in the Philadelphia suburbs, won a lot of fans that fall evening. He told an awed audience about his experiences in Iraq, remembering his friends who never came home and lamenting the mishaps that doomed the rebuilding effort. One of the first Democratic candidates to author his own Iraq plan, Murphy argued that his military experience was desperately needed in a Congress bereft of representatives who had served in combat. Murphy continued his discussion with students at Grafton over some beers.
By the time that Election Day weekend arrived, Murphy was no longer an unknown. He had pulled even with incumbent Republican Mike Fitzpatrick in most polls and pundits touted him as a rising star. The HLS Dems first conducted a phone bank for Murphy in mid-October. And last weekend, thirty students from HLS and the Kennedy School traveled seven hours from Cambridge to Bucks County, PA to try to push him over the top. After arriving in Levittown, PA late Friday night, the students awoke early the following morning to attend a pro-Murphy rally headed by former Vice President Al Gore. Gore lambasted President Bush for abusing Presidential power and implored voters to send to Washington Congressman and Senators who would firm up the backbone of the legislative branch. The rally also featured Governor Ed Rendell, Senator-elect Bob Casey Jr., and West Wing actress Melissa Fitzgerald.
Over the next two days, Harvard students visited more than 10,000 houses to remind voters to head to the polls on Election Day. Using advanced computer technology, the campaign directed the students to the homes of voters who had already been identified as Murphy supporters but needed some motivation to vote. This sophisticated targeting scheme allowed the volunteers to maximize their efficiency during their two long days in the Keystone State. Even the New York Times noted the presence of the Harvard students in an article that ran on Monday. Murphy personally thanked the Harvard students over donuts and coffee on Sunday morning.
The importance of the canvassing effort became apparent on Election Night. With 100 percent of precincts reporting in the district, Murphy led Fitzpatrick by 1,521 votes out of 249,813 cast (there will be a recount). Given that the volunteers reached more than 10,000 doors, it is conceivable that Murphy would have lost the election if Harvard students had not gone to Pennsylvania last weekend. Patrick Murphy impressed his audience when he came to campus this fall; his audience certainly impressed Patrick Murphy this weekend.
The HLS Democrats also contributed to electoral success in New England. About ten HLS Democrats did a phone bank for Massachusetts Governor-elect Deval Patrick in late September and a group of students served as poll watchers on Election Day. In Rhode Island, 13 HLS Dems canvassed for Senator-elect Sheldon Whitehouse in October, knocking on more than 1,000 doors. A few students traveled to Providence on Election Day to do election protection work. And three HLS Dems made the trip to Nashua, NH on Election Day to make GOTV phone calls for Congressman-elect Paul Hodes.
A new Governor, a new Senator, and two new Congressmen. Not too bad for a bunch of law students.
Joe Berkon is a member of the HLS Democrats.