Teens learn value of voting and politics one door knock at a time

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Mikva Challenge participant Cameron Miller (left) and staffer Mike Halpin gather at Garcia campaign headquarters before hitting the street. Photo by Kate Albright-Hanna.

Sixteen-year-old John Ersery is already a battle-tested veteran of Chicago political campaigns.

The junior at Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville worked on behalf of Bruce Rauner’s campaign for governor last year, then switched his energies to helping re-elect Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

As his philosophical counterpart, Cameron Miller, 17, has an equally impressive political resume.

After volunteering on behalf of Gov. Pat Quinn’s campaign in 2014, the Phillips Academy junior took up the torch for Bob Fioretti’s mayoral campaign, then switched over to Jesus “Chuy” Garcia for the runoff.

The two young men could argue all day about whether the future of Chicago is in better hands with Emanuel or Garcia at the helm for the next four years.

But what gives me greater confidence in Chicago’s future is that the city keeps producing civically engaged young men and women such as Ersery and Miller through the Mikva Challenge program, which gets high school students directly involved in the political process.

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I talked politics for a while Monday with a group of Mikva participants, then followed a handful of them out into the Pilsen neighborhood, where they did some last-minute door-knocking on behalf of the Garcia campaign.

My purpose was to end the election on a non-partisan note — and to get the bad taste out of my mouth after the not-so-enlightening six-week runoff campaign.

I always find the Mikva kids to be a remedy for the cynicism that ails me at this point in the election season after watching too many campaign commercials.

Mikva gives them experience in the behind-the-scenes grunt work — from phone banking to street canvassing — that is a key part of any political campaign.

While some students may actually go on to work in politics, what I appreciate is knowing all of them will be better citizens in the future for their experience — citizens who are more likely to vote and to vote knowledgeably.

As evidence that these aren’t just kids who have adopted their parents’ politics, take Ersery.

While he’s backing Emanuel, his mother is an avid Garcia supporter.

“We have a front yard war,” Ersery said, referring to their dueling campaign signs.

Benjamin Pineda, 17, also a junior at Chicago Military Academy, said he found many of the “older” people in his McKinley Park neighborhood [remember older is relative] are disillusioned by politics, They think “my vote doesn’t count,” Pineda told me.

While campaigning on behalf of Garcia, Pineda said he believes he has persuaded some of those people to come out to vote Tuesday, and I could tell he feels good about that.

Anita Delgado, an 18-year-old senior at Kelly High School, voted for the first time in February and already knows she will get one person to the polls who normally might not make it — her mother.

“My family doesn’t like to get involved in politics,” Delgado said.

That ends with her.

Xiao Lin Mei, a 16-year-old junior at Jones College Prep, said she found it empowering while campaigning door-to-door in Chinatown to realize how knowledgeable her community is about politics. Many of those she met challenged her to defend her candidate, Garcia, forcing her to become more knowledgeable.

The students were unanimous in expressing a preference for meeting voters in person instead of calling on the telephone, the latter too often drawing hostile reactions.

“It’s a lot harder for people to be rude to your face than on the phone,” Ersery said.

At one point Monday evening as I was running out of steam, Miller, Pineda and Lin Mei linked arms and skipped down the sidewalk together along Ashland Avenue — as if in a scene from the Wizard of Oz.

Too bad we don’t have a Dorothy to lead Rahm and Chuy down The Yellow Brick Road on Wednesday morning.

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