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At the same time, in the eyes of grassroots organizers, Proposition 23 is hobbled by its real-life cast of "greedy" villains, notably super-rich oil companies whose image took a horrible hit when the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico dominated global headlines for months.
Just before dawn on a cool weekday morning, Elsner drives his cobalt-blue 1984 BMW to UCLA, where Hayley Moller, a blond, upbeat environmental-science major who leads the "No on 23" effort at UCLA, stands with three other students in Bruin Square near the Bruin Bear, a hulking bronze statue.
Unlike a big digital blitz Elsner is organizing with other student leaders across the state, Moller and crew aren't going to attempt a mass text-messaging or an early-morning coordinated Facebook message send. Instead, they plan to hit the pavement and do some "chalking," mostly involving wash-away markers.
That day, the Daily Bruin has reported that UCLA received about $6 million from the feds to help construct a $30 million "green building," where students and researchers will study "energy conservation technologies." Moller, a senior from Marin County, won't be around when the building is finished, but she wants to work in California's clean-tech industry after she graduates in the spring.
"If Proposition 23 happens," Moller says, "it's going to cause huge problems for me. I want to go into a green-energy job, and AB 32 [California's law cracking down on greenhouse-gas emissions] is important for creating and maintaining a clean-energy economy. There's a huge potential for California to fall off the bandwagon and lose opportunities for students."
Now, on the darkened campus, while most UCLA students are asleep, Moller guides Elsner and another environmental-science major, Cassie Trickett, through the hallways and into the gloom of empty, dark classrooms in several buildings.
They quickly begin writing on classroom whiteboards with blue or black washable markers. No security guards are around, but they're not doing anything illegal — chalking is not forbidden on the UCLA campus.
Trickett, a second-year student from Sacramento, has never participated in any political action before. But she wants a clean-energy job, which got her working with Moller. Tall, with long brown hair, wearing shorts and a sweatshirt — she could be a volleyball player — Trickett walks into a classroom cautiously, trying to find the light switch. Moller, who has just flown back into town from Wisconsin, follows close behind, wired with energy. She gives Trickett some pointers.
"Write it big so everyone can read it," Moller says. She trots out some useful student psychology: "Sometimes when you're really tired and don't want to take any more notes, you just start looking around the room. We want them to see that message."
"No on Prop. 23 Rally," the handwritten note left for the class reads, in part. "Stop the Dirty Energy Proposition."
Before daybreak, every morning for a week, Moller and other student volunteers wrote similar notes in some 50 classrooms.
Elsner estimates that several thousand UCLA students have now learned a little something about Proposition 23, and he hopes they'll care enough to vote.
He had set a goal to register 3,000 Bruins as voters before the state deadline of Oct. 18. Moller believes they hit that number due to high interest in Proposition 19.
But in the era of The Social Network, when organizing people through Facebook and texting is portrayed as a staggeringly powerful tool, Elsner finds it can go only so far. "We have to get people off Facebook and get them to vote," he says.
His solution has been to emphasize old-fashioned legwork ripped from the political-organizing pamphlets of a past generation: scrawled messages on walls, face-to-face voter registration, concerts to get people warmed up about voting down Proposition 23.
"It's a big danger to the Republicans," says Democratic consultant Carrick, when "young voters get mobilized for Obama in 2008 and overwhelmingly support marriage equality and protecting the environment, which all tends to fall on the side of the Democratic argument. This generation will be a big voting bloc, and all indications show they are going to be very involved."
For that reason, Elsner is not solely focused on turning out the vote at prestigious universities like UCLA. He's looking east and south, and drumming up support among low-income and minority students — or trying to, as he will soon find out the day he heads east of Hollywood.
The strategy of bringing in working-class and brown and black students, particularly from community colleges, has long been ignored by grassroots activists and student leaders during California campaign seasons, some consultants say.
Yet about 1.7 million students in total attend community colleges in California.
"What California Student Sustainability Coalition is doing is innovative," says Becky Bond, political director for CREDO Action, a grassroots organizing group fighting Proposition 23. "They're picking a gap and working on it."
So, on a hot, sunny morning, Elsner talks into his cell-phone headset as he drives Lili Molina, 31, the environmental-justice director at the Energy Action Coalition, to the LACC campus in East Hollywood.
The old BMW has no air-conditioning, and the windows are rolled down.
Elsner goes over the list of concert dates for the Clean Energy Tour, which features hip-hop artists Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth as well as KCRW DJ Garth Trinidad. Hitting college campuses in Oakland, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego, the anti–Proposition 23 tour is one way to attract young voters, particularly minority students.