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Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) spoke on Oct. 17 to DemCon attendants. (Photo from Owen Voutsinas-Klose)

Each presidential election year, Penn Democrats usually host a convention for other collegiate Democratic clubs where members listen to speakers, phonebank, and contribute to panel discussions surrounding key issues and upcoming races. Despite COVID-19, DemCon continued in a new digital format.

The event, held in collaboration with Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and Yale’s Democratic student organizations, featured speakers like Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), four phone-banking events, discussions about police abolition and foreign policy, along with opportunities for students to engage in dialogues with their Democratic peers at other universities. 

Penn Democrats president and College senior Owen Voutsinas-Klose said that holding the event virtually offered new benefits for students that made the event more accessible, as the group was able to hear from speakers that normally could not travel to Penn’s campus.

Voutsinas-Klose also spoke of his excitement in hearing the inspirational messages of the speakers, especially discussing the high stakes of this years election, and how they are actively working to support the liberal candidates on the ballot. 

“I think Ed Markey gave a really good case for why we need to get rid of Trump and the strength of Biden’s policies, particularly his climate plan,” Voutsinas-Klose said. “Markey made a great case to students of not just sitting out and being disillusioned if your candidate didn’t win the primary, but actually getting involved to help elect Democrats up and down the ballot so that we can organize from within and pressure the Biden administration to take really bold and aggressive action.” 

During his speech, Markey, a longtime champion of climate policy who introduced the Green New Deal resolution alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  (D-N.Y.), emphasized the racial injustices that exist within the criminal justice system and the need to vote Trump out in order to create impactful change in this realm. 

“We have 25% of all the prisoners in the world behind bars here in the United States. There's definitely a system of criminal justice enforcement in our country that penalizes people because they're Black, brown, poor, immigrant, homeless, they have mental health or substance issues, and we criminalize people for that,” Markey said. “We have to change this system, and that's why criminal justice is on the ballot this November.” 

He added that Trump’s rhetoric only serves to divide the nation more, rather than fostering political progress.

“Donald Trump wants to make America great again by making America hate again,” Markey said. “He's deliberately poisoning the political dialogue in our country in order to drive up the turnout amongst his most conservative white voters. So this is our moment. And I thank each and every one of [the student participants] for stepping up and being a part of this.”  

Ro Khanna, a Pennsylvania native who served as the national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, echoed Markey’s sentiments about the importance of progressive policy and winning over young voters in the upcoming election — particularly in battleground states like Pennsylvania. 

“I was born in Philadelphia, my folks live right outside of the city so I have a special attachment there, and there's no coincidence that President Obama addressed the Democratic Convention from Philadelphia, and so much attention has been paid to Philly and Pennsylvania overall, because whoever wins Pennsylvania likely will be the next president,” Khanna said. “We're going to see a massive turnout of young people across America in electing Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, winning back the Senate, and ushering in a new progressive era.” 

Through the course of the weekend, students partook in phone banking events for a wide array of Democratic candidates, including Pennsylvania state legislative candidates such as Deb Ciamacca, a teacher and gun violence prevention activist, and Gary Spillane, who is working to flip a state house district in Bucks County, as well as Susan Wild, Eugene DePasquale and Christina Finello, in their competitive House races in Pennsylvania. 

Students also phone banked for candidates in competitive races outside of Pennsylvania, such as John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who are looking to flip competitive Senate seats in their respective states, as well as North Carolina Senate candidate Cal Cunningham and Maine Senate candidate Sara Gideon, who will both be taking on GOP incumbents in Democratic-leaning states. 

Penn Dems Political Director and College junior Michael Nevett said that he was pleased to see how many students turned out not only to listen to the speakers and panels, but to volunteer their time phone banking for candidates. 

“I think that we empowered a lot of first time phone bankers over the course of the weekend, which was great to see, because we heard the speakers talk a lot about the importance of getting involved over the next two weeks, Nevett said. “One of the best ways to do that is by phone banking.” 

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