In UMass Democrats and Republicans, two leaders manage a difficult political climate By Will katcher

They may appear miles apart from agreeing on political policy, but Sonia Guglani and Alex Gearty work just a few feet away from each other in the second floor Student Union office, where they run two of the University of Massachusetts' most involved clubs.

Guglani, a junior, and Gearty, a senior, chair the UMass College Democrats and Republicans, respectively, and share the goal of educating students and promoting their political views on campus.

Before they ran two major student clubs, Guglani and Gearty were new freshmen just like any other. Both attended the Student Activities Expo held at the beginning of each year, and both were drawn to the enthusiasm that their future club brought to the table.

"I realized it's really important to be politically engaged and involved," Guglani said. "That was something I really didn't think was important in high school."

As she entered the UMass College Democrats, Guglani learned to canvas, campaign and make phone calls. Eventually she moved up the ranks, taking on the roles of deputy secretary, secretary and finally president.

UMass Democrats president Sonia Guglani speaks at one of the organization's meetings. (Courtesy of Trenton Thornburg)

Like Guglani, Gearty saw the same spirit in members of her own political party and began attending meetings. Within a few weeks, she realized why it was crucial for her to devote time to the UMass College Republicans.

"I didn't really feel like my views were being told in classes," Gearty said.

For Gearty, whose political roots trace back to her family and upbringing, politics has always held a place in her mind. In 2012, when she was in high school, she worked in Massachusetts and New Hampshire on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

Gearty said she was "raised Republican," but mentioned that coming from a military family and believing the Republican Party takes better care of veterans contributed to her beliefs.

Even as someone whose early life played a strong role in shaping her political views, Gearty is an independent thinker. She diverges from party lines on a number of issues, notably social policy - something, she said, some members of her family do not do.

Gearty called herself "right of center" - fiscally conservative, socially liberal, agreeing with Republicans on foreign policy and siding with Democrats on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

"We're trying to help the middle class, as opposed to trying to help the top one percent."

"It's hard to not be [socially liberal] if you're raised in Massachusetts," she said, describing how having those values surrounding you can help you learn to understand them, even when your family may not subscribe to them.

Guglani is confident where she falls politically, describing herself as a "strong Democrat," who closely identifies with the Democratic platform.

"We're trying to help the middle class, as opposed to trying to help the top one percent," Guglani said.

"Women in politics face a lot of crap."

Guglani's political role models - President Barack Obama and Senator Kamala Harris of California - further speak to her identity as a by-the-books liberal. But they also draw parallels to the challenges both Guglani and Gearty face as women in politics - a male-dominated field.

Both Obama and Harris were considered outliers in their professions, Obama as the first African-American president and Harris as the second-ever Black woman in the Senate. Guglani calls herself lucky, having grown up in Massachusetts, that she hasn't had a difficult time as a politically-active woman. But Gearty tells a different story.

"Women in politics face a lot of crap," she said, recalling how as the newly elected president of the club, some male members went behind her back in an attempt to impeach her. To other club leaders, they cited the lack of "strong male leadership."

In her role, Gearty hosts most College Republican meetings and moderates the group discussions.

"It took a long time for people to garner that respect for me so that they listen when I say, 'You're done, next person,'" Gearty explained.

Gearty said that under her leadership, the representation of women in the club has also improved.

"We have three to four girls that consistently come," she said. "It's better than when I started. I was the only girl when I walked in."

Much of the work the clubs do on campus involves organizing events, engaging with fellow students and bringing in speakers. Both clubs also hold regular meetings and are active in the community, especially during election seasons.

In the last year, the College Democrats campaigned on behalf of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who won his race. But they were also active on campus, bringing in Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey for a town hall discussion, inviting former Mayor of Newton and candidate for governor Setti Warren to speak and hosting events with the College Democrats clubs at the other Five College Consortium schools.

Attorney General Maura Healey holds a discussion, "a first line of defense against the unconstitutional overreach of the Trump administration," at UMass Amherst's Student Union Ballroom, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. (Caroline O'Connor/Daily Collegian)

The Republicans have also been involved on campus and are eager to continue hosting discussions with students. Gearty said she would like the club to continue working toward getting Governor Charlie Baker re-elected this fall.

Both women said they are faced with the difficult task of managing a range of views at meetings. For Democrats, there can be disagreement over the extent to which certain programs should be implemented, or varying opinions on the future of the party. Much of the debate mirrors the divide between the supporters of the traditional Democratic views of Hillary Clinton and the far-left views of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries.

For the Republicans, the divisions can be clearer, falling between supporters of traditional conservative policies, followers of President Trump and those who hold some left-leaning principles, like Gearty, who said that members' views largely depend on how they were raised, what their family life is like and what their experience on a given issue is. Even within one political party or club, the diversity of thought is evident.

What they agree on, though, is the general nature of UMass' political tendencies. Gearty believes professors can be biased in favor of the left, and Guglani agrees.

"It is very left-leaning," Guglani said. "Many professors are too, and you can notice that."

Guglani acknowledged that it may be difficult as a conservative to feel comfortable in classes when sharing views.

"They know that the majority of the class, including the professor, has a different stance," she said. This type of environment - a class dominated by left-leaning opinions - is one many students, especially those in politics-related majors, may experience.

But this is also the type of situation the two clubs work to counter. Democrats seek to provide reasonable and educated discussion of issues. Republicans hope to establish a space where their views can be heard, and Gearty, Guglani said, has created a place where people who are conservative can speak comfortably.

Both women understand the value in open discussion and informed argument too. That's why they took it upon themselves to organize a debate last week, where four of their respective officers sat down in front of an audience to discuss a range of foreign and domestic policy topics.

The idea for a debate was originally floated by Jack Eccles, College Democrats vice president, who proposed it earlier this year, according to Guglani. For two clubs whose goals are the education and promotion of a political ideology, the debate gave them a chance to help people "get a grasp about what each party is about," Guglani explained.

Guglani said, "A lot of people don't know where to identify their beliefs, or they don't know politics, or they don't know what each party stands for."

At the debate, which lasted just under 90 minutes, each side described their positions on the issues and sought to explain the merits behind their argument. At times, the speakers read from prepared statements, but they occasionally strayed off script, talking personally about their own views.

Such was the case when Carly Bishop, College Republicans vice president, took the microphone and said, "I'm going to say something that isn't very Republican," before stating her pro-choice views. For audience members, this may have been the cue that it's important to hear someone out before judging them based on their political party.

In an interview in the week following the debate, Gearty said that she "really enjoyed the fact that people were respecting both sides" and that "it's those types of conversations that people our age need to have before we get stubborn and old."

Gearty added that debate and events are important in changing people's views on what being a Republican means.

"We're labeled with all those '-isms,'" she said. "Before they meet us, they have assumptions, so we're trying to break those assumptions."

Gearty agreed with what Bishop said about abortion during the debate, saying that it highlighted both the diversity of opinions in her club and the fact that many members tend to lean socially liberal.

"A lot of people just assume I'm pro-life, or that I don't think gay people should be married or exist," she said. "We're trying to show that while there are people in our party who agree with those things, that is not the entire party, and that is not what our RSO [registered student organization] stands for."

For her club, finding the right way to educate the greater community has occasionally caused roadblocks. Two years ago, the Republican Club hosted a controversial event called "The Triggering: Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?," which was widely attended by supporters and protesters alike. Gearty, who became vice president with the event already in the works, said that departing senior members of the club "wanted to go out with a bang" after feeling for years that their views did not matter on campus.

Milo Yiannopoulos speaks at "The Triggering: Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?," an event organized by the UMass College Republicans. (Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

"I was not very happy with the outcome of the event," she said, noting how, at times, it descended into chaos. "I don't think it was the right message to send to campus."

Gearty, instead, would prefer students sitting down and talking about issues in a panel or debate format. She'd like to avoid the entertainment value of an event like "The Triggering" and keep the focus on students who have differing views explaining what their opinions are. In a speech before the recent debate, she asserted that her club's goal is never to "brainwash you" or "turn you Republican."

"We just want you to know what our views are and why we have the views that we do," she said.

It's because of this belief that she has focused her tenure as president on student-driven events, including a question and answer session last year in which audience members could ask her, Bishop and club treasurer John Maloney about their beliefs and allow them to explain their positions.

The office that the two clubs is in is a cramped second-floor room of the Student Union. The walls are crowded with red and blue posters, some for Charlie Baker and others for Elizabeth Warren. Guglani and Gearty's desks are close enough that they wouldn't even need to raise their voices to hear each other across the room. There is plenty of opportunity for political discussion, but they spend enough time in the same room that getting along is a necessity.

Members of UMass College Republicans stand with Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. (Courtesy of UMass College Republicans)

Both women speak highly of the other. "Alex is phenomenal," said Guglani, who recognizes the difficulty Gearty faces managing competing ideologies within the Republican Party. "She does a very good job moderating [multiple ideologies] and making sure everyone feels included."

On Guglani, Gearty said that she appreciates the respect Guglani and the rest of the College Democrats give their Republican counterparts - something that may not be afforded to them at a different school. Gearty also said that she respects the Democrats commitment to doing what they believe is right.

"Consistently, every week, they're doing something, and that is something that I strive for my organization to have," she said.

Eccles reiterated this point, saying that with Guglani, progress is actually made between meetings. It's never just empty talk when she devotes her mind to a problem.

The variance of opinion within each club is evident and shows observers that a political party is never as well-defined as its national platform or talking-heads suggest. At the core, every member is shaped by their own experiences with issues, resulting in Democrats and Republicans alike who hold views traditionally associated with the other party.

Regardless of political stance, both clubs exist not only to promote their ideas, but to teach people about them.

"I think it's good for people to educate themselves on every issue that they're passionate about, and then go out and do something about it, regardless of which side they're on," Gearty said. "I don't care what your political views are as long as you can back them up with a strong argument."

Will Katcher can be reached at wkatcher@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @will_katcher.

Top photo courtesy of Glenn Houlihan.

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