What brought protestors to Tempe's Original ChopShop?

A voter registration event drew the ire of local conservatives Aug. 17

Progressive activists flocked to Original ChopShop in Tempe on Friday hoping to register students, a notoriously elusive voting bloc, to participate in the upcoming elections.

The Arizona branch of NextGen America, an environmental political action committee founded and backed by billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer, led the event, one of several voter registration drives and training sessions the group is holding on 400 campuses during move-in week nationwide. 

Steyer spoke of the importance of youth engagement and praised ASU for its accessibility but drew the ire of some conservative activists who came to the cafe to protest the billionaire's support of a controversial environmental ballot initiative. 

Nicolette Del Palacio, a senior majoring in psychology at ASU, is an organizer for NextGen Arizona. Del Palacio said the organization registered 1100 ASU students to vote during move-in. 

“We’re having conversations with ASU students and figuring out what matters to them and encouraging them to vote on those issues,” Del Palacio said. 

Generally this means the cost of education and of living, access to healthcare and the environment, she said. This wasn't the group's first time on campus — NextGen came to ASU in April and used a DJ booth and petting zoo to draw people in

Students are a fickle voting group. Even though young people are highly politically engaged, they show up to the voting booth at low levels

They're an especially important part of the equation for progressives, who are hoping students will contribute to a "blue wave" in the upcoming midterm elections.

"We're going to turn the entire state blue," Lauren Kuby, a Tempe councilwoman and manager at ASU's Julie Ann Wrigley Institute of Sustainability, said at the event. "The values that you guys represent are progressive values."

A TargetSmart analysis of voter registration data found an 8.2 percent increase in registered young voters in Arizona between February and July of 2018.

37 percent of young people identified as Democrats in 2016, fewer than in previous years, according to the Brookings Institution, compared to 27 percent who were registered Republicans. But Kuby said the divisiveness of the Trump era could solidify youth support for Democrats. 

"I think people are done with this," she said. "They're realizing that this is the most consequential election of their generation, and that we can take back ... Congress. We have a chance to win a Democratic seat in the Senate."

Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate currently serving as a congresswoman for Arizona's Ninth District and an ASU social work lecturer, is a heavyweight contender for the senate seat of Republican Jeff Flake, who's stepping down after the end of his term. 

Steyer's presence drew backlash from local conservatives. Roughly 50 protesters, mostly young,  came to the event, chanting slogans like "Steyer the Liar."

Renae Eze, the Arizona Communications Director for the Republican National Committee, said the protesters were targeting the clean energy ballot initiative Steyer and NextGen America are backing. Eze said the proposition would raise utility bills for consumers.

“Arizonans just want to voice their opinion on the initiative," Eze said. "Like their signs say, they don’t want him to 'California our Arizona.'” 

Members of the Arizona GOP mobilized out of the party's Mesa office to stand up to "California liberals" like Steyer, according to the group's Facebook page. 

The Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona initiative would require 50 percent of energy in Arizona to come from renewable sources, such as solar and wind, by the year 2030.

Kuby said she appreciates Steyer's efforts to prioritize clean energy and increase student voter turnout. 

"He’s taken his philanthropy and... is putting it to the best purpose possible," Kuby said. "He’s investing in the next generation (of students) because they’re the ones that are going to change the world and they already are."

At times, Steyer’s speech was drowned out by the chants and yells of the protesters, who stood less than 20 feet away.

“To me, it’s a good sign they’re afraid (of the midterms),” Kuby said. 

Reach the reporter at cscragg@asu.edu or follow @monsoonchaser on Twitter. 

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