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Credit: Max Mester

Twenty days into President Joe Biden’s presidential term, political groups on Penn’s campus are now gearing up for a hybrid approach to event-hosting this semester, focusing on increasing membership and supporting their preferred candidates.

Penn Democrats

Wharton sophomore and Penn Democrats Communications Director Holly Anderson said that, while the majority of programming this semester will still be online due to the pandemic, similar to last semester, the club will have some opportunities for in-person and socially distanced events in local areas outdoors. 

This month, group members are walking to local Black-owned businesses, such as Nothin’ but Cheesecakez, in Center City in honor of Black History Month. Gatherings such as these are not meant to be large, Anderson said. They are hosted in an effort to bring back the “Dems community” because many students have been apart from one another for so long due to the pandemic.

This semester, Penn Dems is also trying to shift gears from election-related work to holding Biden accountable for his promises, Anderson said.

Because Democrats control both the presidency and Congress, Anderson said that the club’s focus will move from advocating for federal issues to supporting more local issues. 

In upcoming general club meetings held over Zoom, the group is bringing in local representatives to speak, such as 2013 Engineering graduate Rick Krajewski, a progressive Democrat who represents Philadelphia’s 188th district encompassing University City and the surrounding West Philadelphia neighborhoods, and Brian Sims, a Democrat who represents the city's 182nd district including Center City.

Anderson added that in order to retain student membership, Penn Dems hopes to connect with those who voted in the 2020 presidential election but who are not still involved in politics. The club will host Zoom panels on different current event topics and policy issues, such as public health, sexual assault education, and advocacy. 

“There’s plenty of stuff happening every week, and there’s a good mix of both online and in-person stuff just so you can accommodate everyone who might be on campus or not this semester,” Anderson said. 

Aside from a more hybrid approach, the group added a new Diversity Committee on their Executive Board to be led by Diversity and Coalitions Director and Wharton sophomore Louis Ayala. While the role used to be fulfilled by the outreach director, Anderson said Penn Dems felt the creation of this position was more necessary at the moment. 

“I think that it’s long overdue, and I’m really excited for kind of what the club can accomplish with these roles in place,” Anderson said. 

Penn Democrats phone banked in January 2021 to urge eligible Georgia voters to vote blue. (Photo from Noah Lewine)

Penn Justice Dems

Ever since Penn for Bernie revamped into a more progressive student organization, Penn Justice Democrats last fall, College junior and Penn Justice Dems Communications Co-Chair Jack Cahill said the group has seen an increase in participation — garnering over 100 new members with nearly 300 members on their email listserv. 

This semester will likely be a continuation of last semester, with a focus on virtual social events through Zoom, such as games and political discussions, Cahill said. The club, however, does plan to do in-person, socially distanced events later in the spring.

Penn Justice Dems will be phone-banking for Democrat candidate Nina Turner, an Ohio state senator who is a top ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Turner is running to fill the vacancy left by Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who left the position when she was nominated by Biden to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

The group also plans to bring in two speakers over Zoom, Akela Lacy, a political reporter for The Intercept, who will speak to the group on Feb. 16, followed by Noam Chomsky, a notable linguist and political writer and activist, who will speak on April 12. 

“Since election season is over, we’re hoping to build a stronger sense of community, and hopefully garner more solidarity between members of the club. We really want this to be a space where people feel empowered to speak their own mind about their progressive politics,” Cahill said. 

Similar to Penn Dems, Cahill said the club will shift its focus from election-related events to engage in "some sort of pressure campaign" to ensure Biden fulfills some of his promises. Penn Justice Dems specifically wants Biden to focus on healthcare, ideally supporting a single-payer "Medicare For All," which Cahill explained is an important topic for the group, as 15 million United States citizens have lost their health insurance during the COVID-19 pandemic. The club also wants to make sure Biden “stays true" to his climate change plan and hopes to push him further left on his policies. 

Penn College Republicans

College sophomore and Penn College Republicans Communications Director Harrison Selznick wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that this semester, the club's activities will largely look like a continuation of last semester, involving many game nights and group Zoom calls, though they are also considering hosting in-person events.

“The only difference [from last semester] is that we are [hoping] to do in-person events later in the semester, whenever the University updates their guidelines for larger group meetings,” Selznick wrote. 

Specifically, they plan to have in-person game nights and in-person mixers with other political groups. 

College Republicans also hopes to expand its outreach to increase membership and group participation. While the club is lacking the in-person component students are used to, Selznick wrote that virtual programming has allowed them to positively experiment with events and ideas that they had not previously attempted. 

Penn Government and Politics Association

Penn Government and Politics Association is the largest non-partisan political group on Penn’s campus and is divided up into three branches: the Polybian Society, the Penn Political Review, and the Penn Political Union. 

The Polybian Society is an informal discussion group that meets weekly over Zoom to discuss different political topics. College junior and GPA President Sumant Rao, who oversees all three branches, said that though the conversations within the Polybian Society have not changed with the remote format, the social aspect is, however, lacking. 

“This last semester we kind of found out that a lot of those social aspects have to be intentionally planned for, so we have more dedicated social events,” Rao said. 

The Penn Political Review, which is the group's political magazine, was not much affected by a virtual delivery because the group’s main focus has always been publishing a website, Rao said. Though the magazine would typically have a table on Locust to pass out printed copies, Rao said they might leave stacks of the magazine in college houses for students due to COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

The final branch, the Penn Political Union, usually hosts formal debates where students conduct formal research and debate or have conversations with notable speakers in events usually held in College Hall. After hosting last semester's virtual debate between College Republicans and Penn Dems in anticipation of the election, which was viewed by about 300 participants, Rao said the group hopes to plan another debate between the two groups a few months into the spring semester, once the Biden presidency has more time in office.

GPA is also planning an event on women’s issues in Philadelphia to be held in mid-April. Though they are currently reaching out to speakers, Rao said that due to past success with mixing Penn professors, city government officials, and nonprofit representatives, the event would likely feature similar participants. 

“We thought it would be a good event because [COVID-19] has impacted women in a very unique way in the sense that a lot of the jobs lost have belonged to women in a disproportionate way. Just because a lot of the service jobs were interrupted by the pandemic," Rao said. 

Aside from event planning, Rao emphasized that the club hopes to involve more first years in order to draw in more group participation and increase the social aspect, which he said has been lacking this year in comparison to previous years due to the pandemic.