With fall elections fast approaching, University students have become active participants in local politics, specifically through internships and jobs with Virginia congressional candidates.
Two students, fourth-year College student Marissa Mullen and fourth-year Batten student Bryan Pfirrmann, have both taken active roles in their respective political parties.
“What [Thomas] Jefferson envisioned as part of the responsibility of the citizen [was] to be involved with and be passionate about things going on around you,” Mullen said. “[This] is extremely pertinent for congressional elections.”
The fifth congressional district, spanning from Danville to Charlottesville, is the largest district in Virginia. This election, the seat is open with the retirement of incumbent Rep. Robert Hurt (R-VA).
Mullen is working as an intern for Republican candidate Tom Garrett’s campaign. Previously, Garrett served in the Virginia State Senate beginning in 2011.
“The fifth district is super important to Virginia,” Mullen said. “On a personal level, I just wanted to be involved in electing someone who I thought would be best for that position.”
Mullen’s responsibilities thus far have included making phone calls to identify potential voters and encouraging them to get out to vote for Garrett.
On the other side of the ballot, Pfirrmann began interning for Democratic candidate Jane Dittmar at the beginning of summer. Dittmar, a University alumna, previously served as chair of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors since 2014 before running for Congress.
Pfirrmann works as a field organizer with the campaign, which includes overseeing interns and helping to run the phone bank and canvassing opportunities. He said working in a small office allows interns and field organizers to make real contributions to the campaign.
“It’s a really good opportunity to have a lot of input into what goes on, and if you have ideas to help the campaign, there’s people there who will listen and really put those into action,” Pfirrmann said. “It’s a big learning experience, but there’s also room for leadership and opportunities to succeed.”
Looking toward the future, Mullen said she values the professional experience of working on a campaign.
“I worked on the hill this summer — I was a congressional press intern for Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) from the fourth district of Virginia,” Mullen said. “I loved working on the hill … and I guess that … part of my hope [is] that through this experience I’ll meet people who’ll be able to put me in the right direction. You meet really great people who have similar interests [and] similar passions.”
Pfirrmann said through his work on the campaign, he has been able to develop further communication skills. Specifically, with respect to door-to-door and telephone canvassing he has learned to adapt to different situations.
“A lot of the experiences you gain as an intern and a field organizer are all about those communications skills,” Pfirrmann said. “[For example], the being able to interact with a variety of individuals from all different backgrounds and being able to adapt your personal stories to fit them.”
Pfirrmann’s work revolves around building personal relationships with potential voters and volunteers on the campaign.
“We want to make numbers and reach out to as many people [as possible], but the process is almost as important as the outcome,” Pfirrmann said. “You really want to build those relationships up so people want to come back … and be part of the process that’s going on.”
Ryan Fowle, the intern coordinator for Garrett’s campaign, emphasized the value of the internship experience, particularly for students looking to pursue politics postgrad.
“Congressional internships afford the opportunity to gain basic administrative experience, interact with people from all walks of life, engage in the local community and build relationships with local leaders and businesses,” Fowle said. “These relationships and the experience itself are vital when trying to break into the professional world when the time comes.”
Mullen stressed the importance of local political activism and encouraged University students to become involved.
“It’s part of your civic duty to devote time out of your super busy schedule,” Mullen said. “I think it’s just part of everyone’s role as a citizen to kind of make your voice heard through supporting or working for local congressional elections. It all makes a difference, and it makes you feel like you’re a part of something that’s bigger than just kind of what’s going on in the little U.Va. bubble.”
Pfirrmann thinks the University community could stand to improve on its local political involvement.
“[Charlottesville] is our home for four years, and I really want to try to give back to my home as much as I can,” Pfirrmann said. “Inspiring political activism and inspiring someone to vote is probably genuinely the greatest part of working on a political campaign.”
The Batten School will host both Dittmar and Garrett for a congressional debate in Garrett Hall, open to the public, on Sept. 28.