Mike Occhipinti has found that he’s pretty knowledgeable about city government for a 20-year-old: he knows that there are eight Raleigh City Council members, and that they’re up for election this fall.
It doesn’t take much to be considered knowledgeable about local politics, he said, even among political science majors and party-affiliated college clubs.
“Municipal government goes right over their head,” said Occhipinti, who takes college courses online but visits many area universities.
“They don’t know how many seats are on the city council,” he said. “They have no idea what the issues are.”
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Occhipinti and four of his friends are out to change that.
This summer, they formed the Youth Government Association with the goal of getting young people more involved in Raleigh and Wake County politics.
“They’re the ones making decisions on whether a skyrise goes up or whether you can drink on patios,” Occhipinti said, referring to the council’s recent decision to limit drinking on city sidewalks.
The group has walked local college campuses, persuading 2,500 young people to register to vote.
They have reached out to student leaders at Raleigh’s biggest universities – including N.C. State, Shaw, Meredith College and Wake Tech Community College – where they hope to create clubs for students to research, discuss and react to local issues.
And Thursday, YGA is holding its first formal meeting, where Raleigh City Councilman Bonner Gaylord and former Raleigh mayor Smedes York are scheduled to speak while attendees eat free food.
The event is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. in room 301 of The James B. Hunt Jr. Library, 1070 Partners Way on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus.
“We don’t care what their opinions are (about local issues), we just want them to have one,” said Mackenzie Andrews, a 20-year-old Wake Tech student who started the YGA with Occhipinti.
“As youth of Raleigh, what do we need to be focused on?” he said.
Andrews and Occhipinti became interested in local politics after meeting Gaylord at one of the councilman’s events earlier this year.
Gaylord was impressed that the group was interested in city issues such as homelessness and affordable housing.
“It’s very rare. Very rare,” he said.
The YGA founders have attended several of Gaylord’s events, and he’s encouraged them to try to reach an idle voter base.
“The group could make a difference,” he said. “About 10 percent of our population is college students, but it’s a portion that doesn’t engage with local government.”
Raleigh’s college students should pay attention, Gaylord said, because the city’s decisions can affect everything from bus routes to parks and greenways.
Andrews and Occhipinti, along with 20-year-old N.C. State student Hans Seebaluck, 20-year-old Wake Tech student Christian Hampton and 21-year-old Wake Tech student Graham Mitchell quickly found an issue to talk about when recruiting new voters: Raleigh’s new sidewalk drinking rules.
The city council in August imposed new rules requiring downtown bars and restaurants to stop serving food and alcohol on public sidewalks at midnight Sunday through Thursday and at 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights.
“Kids do not like to be told when to go to bed, whether it’s from the government or from their mother,” Occhipinti said.
The group hopes to register a total of 4,000 new voters by Friday, Wake County’s registration deadline. And ultimately, the group wants Raleigh’s community of millennials to become a voting block to be reckoned with.
On election day, Occhipinti and his friends hope to march through downtown Raleigh with hundreds of young people.
“We want to show people that we care, and we’re young,” Occhipinti said.