May 3-9, 2002
Back Issues
Casteen discusses employee issues, academic mission
Gift to provide $5M for Arts Grounds
Elwood, key figure in U.Va.’s desegregation, dies
Center promotes value of politics and importance of civic-mindedness

Pedalin’ professor weaned himself from his wheels

Letters -- letter from Eugenio Schettini
Hot Links -- Office of the Architect
Graduate assistants receive teaching awards
Summer camps to keep kids busy
Politics 101: Gov. Warner addresses students
Politics makes ‘Your State, Community and Nation Better’
Larry Sabato
Photo by Stephanie Gross
U.Va. politics professor Larry Sabato casts a mock vote on his center’s latest acquisition, a genuine Palm Beach County Florida voting booth, complete with butterfly ballot and pregnant chads. The center followed up on the historic Election 2000 debacle in its spring 2001 National Symposium Series.

Center promotes value of politics and importance of civic-mindedness

By Elizabeth Kiem

In some circles, politics is a dirty word.

“Almost everybody in America thinks politics is smoke-filled rooms and corruption and bribery, and it’s not that at all,” said Larry Sabato, the well-known political pundit and University professor of politics. “It’s simply a means to make your state and your community and your nation better. So we shouldn’t be ashamed to be identified with this process that permits us to perfect society.”

To that end, in the next few months U.Va.’s 4-year-old Center for Governmental Studies will become simply the Center for Politics. The name change, which necessitates a graphic, logo and Web site overhaul, reflects more than a preference for pithiness. It indicates a willingness on the part of the organization’s staff to put their money where their mouth is.

“It was the name of choice from the beginning,” said Alex Theodoridis, the center’s chief of staff who, as a fourth-year student, aided Sabato in lobbying for state funds to open the center. “It links in with Larry’s motto ‘politics is a good thing,’ and it tells a little better what we are trying to do here.”

Combating the bias against politics was a fight from the beginning. The General Assembly rejected the name “Center for Politics,” saying it would sour the public against the organization. To secure funding, Sabato deferred to those concerns. Now, a solid track record of celebrated local initiatives and acclaimed national forums has persuaded him to risk the center’s “good name” to bestow some honor on the political process.

Sabato, a former Rhodes Scholar who graduated from U.Va. in 1974, joined the faculty in 1978 and was granted the Robert Kent Gooch chair for government and foreign affairs in 1992. He teaches state and national politics to more than 500 undergrads annually and advises graduate students as well.

But his mission has always been to broaden that reach, capturing young minds outside his seminars and lectures.

Courtesy of the Center for Governmental Studies
A high school student is being interviewed by a TV reporter following the 1999 center-sponsored debate between Virginia state senatorial candidates Jane Maddux and the late Emily Couric. Students ran the entire debate, a Youth Leadership Initiative event held at U.Va. YLI is the center’s program to educate middle- and high school students on the importance of politics and civic participation.

“By the time they come to college, it’s almost too late,” Sabato said. If you haven’t established a pattern of young people following politics, watching the news, discussing public issues with friends and family, it’s unlikely you can establish some interest in college.”

Sabato’s solution is the Youth Leadership Initiative. It began as a statewide drive to get middle school and high school students interested in politics using cutting-edge technologies and interactive exercises. This year, the center will offer a year-long Web-based curriculum to teachers across the nation, tailoring every lesson plan to each state’s standards of learning.

The youth initiative’s first milestone came in November 2000, when it sponsored the largest on-line mock balloting in history. While the returns were immaterial to the non-virtual election, the polling caught the attention of Congress. Within a month, the Department of Education gave a grant of $1 million and doubled the grant seven months later to support the program’s national expansion. Now, a quarter of a million children in 35 states participate in some part of the youth leadership program, which can be sampled on-line at

The software package is a dramatic improvement on the standard mock debates and elections because it provides continuity throughout the school year.

Campaigning and voting occupy the fall. During the spring, classes participate in virtual congressional committees and hearings to simulate the legislative process.
“Our goal was to be an all-year, every-year civics education program and a way to keep students engaged from start to finish,” said Ken Stroupe, director of the youth initiative.


In order to strengthen American democracy, the Center for Politics promotes the value of politics and seeks to improve civics education and increase civic participation through comprehensive research, pragmatic analysis and innovative educational programs.


• to be recognized as the leading institution on politics

• to seek and evaluate best practices in civics education

• to develop and promote classroom resources for elementary, secondary and higher education

• to raise awareness and understanding of politics through events and publications

• to serve as a complete political resource for students, teachers, journalists, elected officials and the general public

Center activities

• Youth Leadership Initiative

• American Democracy Conference

• National Symposium Series

• Governors Conference

• Debates

• Publications

Another innovation of the program is its scope, made possible by Internet technology. Just as local students watching returns come in from their peers across the country get a real sense of what Election Day feels like, the program’s e-congress is a more accurate simulation of policymaking than Schoolhouse Rock could ever be.

While the youth initiative is the center’s largest program in budget, manpower and scope, there are plenty of other projects afoot at the center. Sponsoring three annual conferences fills up the bulk of the staff meetings.

On the most local level is the governor’s project, culminating in a summer conference dedicated to the legacies and experiences of a modern Virginia governor.

“Virginia is the only state left with a one-term limit. We run through governors so quickly it’s difficult to recall them over the years,” Sabato said with a chuckle. “So I thought it was important to preserve some of this information from them and from their key people. It also allows them to comment on the current day from the perspective of experience.”

Past conferences have paid tribute to Mills Godwin Jr., Charles S. Robb, John Dalton and Linwood Holton.

Every December, the center hosts the American Democracy Conference, which is designed as an election-day postmortem. The timing of the third conference leant an immediacy to the proceedings. Held on Dec. 6, 2000, at the climax of the Florida recount saga, panelists were interrupted frequently with updates from the U.S. and Florida supreme courts.

The center followed up on the historic debacle of Election 2000 during its spring National Symposium Series. Dedicated to the Presidential Selection Process, the symposium produced a report outlining suggestions for electoral reform.
The topic for this year’s National Symposium was decided by the events of Sept. 11. April has been dedicated to forums exploring wartime politics in America. Panels included a range of informed voices from the media, academia and Capitol Hill, focusing on the role of partisanship during wartime and a historical analysis of lessons to be learned from past military campaigns.

“We try to combine the civics education and the political participation with some degree of academic research. What separates us from a lot of centers is that while we do the academic research, it has a very practical focus. We don’t want to do these great reports on these high-minded ideas that have no chance of getting enacted,” said Joshua Scott, director of communications. “And a lot of that philosophy comes from Larry himself.”

As with all public policy forums, non-partisanship is crucial to the integrity of the center. “To some degree there are sacrifices involved in the work that we’re doing. A lot of us came from political backgrounds,” said Scott, who worked for the late Emily Couric, a Democrat, for three years before coming to the center.

Theodoridis, also a Democrat, once ran a lieutenant governor’s campaign. Stroupe was press secretary for Republican Gov. George Allen.

A visit to the center’s offices on Old Ivy Road does not conjure up images of frenetic political junkies, although staffers admit to faithfully following “The West Wing” and Theodoridis, the first official center employee, passes out business cards reading “Chief of Staff.” Up to 20 interns offer their services in the name of political empowerment, and everyone has pulled a few all-nighters.

But here, two hours south of Capitol Hill, the hallways are uncongested and tranquil. The walls are free of blaring banks of 24-hour news channels. Indeed, there is only one television on the premises, and it was only recently connected to cable. A genuine Palm Beach County Florida voting booth, complete with butterfly ballot and pregnant chads, is proudly displayed in the center’s conference room.

Sometime in the next five years, the center should have a new home in the historical Birdwood Estate, a University-owned mansion that’s been unoccupied for almost a decade. To fund the necessary renovation, as well as to endow all its programs, the center will announce a five-year capital campaign to raise $16 million.

“We’re very keen on being part of the University, in the sense that we want U.Va. to be the leading institution in this field. And as our programs expand, that will help U.Va. become a leading voice in terms of civic engagement and political participation,” Theodoridis said. “It’s a fairly new focus for the University.”

There seems no better example of the impact this new focus has made on the University and the community than the civic zeal of Megan McDade. She was a Youth Leadership Initiative student in high school and now is a second-year student in Sabato’s American politics course.

“[Sabato’s] enthusiasm is really contagious,” McDade said. “I followed the whole primaries very closely, and I knew I wanted to take his class on American politics. It’s ironic, because I’m actually a Canadian citizen, and I just really wish I could vote.”


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