Evan Baehr feels oppressed. This alleged marginalization has nothing to do with race; he’s white. Nor is it social; he is a member of Cottage Club and a KA brother. His parents are still married. He drives a white Cadillac SUV. He has blue eyes and dimples. A senior Wilson School major, he can’t even claim the dishonorable distinction of being a Woody Woo reject.
So where does Evan Baehr get off saying he’s the object of discrimination?
Well, as you might have heard, Baehr is a conservative. He believes in limited government, natural law, and the importance of traditional institutions such as the family and the church. He is against affirmative action and gay marriage; he is pro-life and in favor of defense spending.
When he complains about prejudice, then, Baehr is referring to ideological discrimination. He thinks that his political views make him a minority in the liberal environment of academia.
“As a conservative at Princeton, if all the professors speak the same language and the majority of students are nodding, even if you grew up with conservative beliefs, you start to think, ‘These people are smart, so they must be right,’” Baehr explained in a recent interview at Chancellor Green Café.
To illustrate the kind of silencing of conservative views that he believes is common at Princeton, Baehr gives the example of a pro-life woman in a Women’s Studies class.
“Out of fear of attack or ridicule, she would be intimidated to speak her mind,” he says.
The oppression that Baehr experiences at Princeton is somewhat self-imposed. He paints an almost unbelievably wholesome picture of his childhood in Pensacola, Florida. Baehr’s parents were also raised in Pensacola; they were, as he puts it, “high school sweethearts” at the Catholic school they both attended. The Baehrs now live in the same neighborhood as many of Mr. and Mrs. Baehr’s high school classmates. They attend a Presbyterian church within walking distance of their house, where Mrs. Baehr plays in the bell choir and Evan participated in Vacation Bible School during his high school summers.
“It’s really a neighborhood church,” Baehr says. “There are Wednesday and Sunday night suppers, a rec league, arts and crafts. My family spent a lot of time there.”
Starting in high school, though, Baehr began to put himself in situations that would challenge instead of nurture his burgeoning conservatism. His older brother Scott followed a path similar to their parents’; he attended the same local Catholic high school, and he, too, married his high school girlfriend. Baehr, on the other hand, chose to participate in the International Baccalaureate program at Pensacola High School. A public school in downtown Pensacola, PHS is hardly a predictable alma mater for a fiscal and social conservative. Sixty-five per cent of the students receive federally funded lunch, and the school has a daycare center—for the students’ children.
When selecting a college, Baehr again rejected the comfortable. Though he considered attending schools where he would find more fellow conservatives (Vanderbilt, Florida State), Baehr ended up deciding between two relatively liberal institutions: Stanford and Princeton. He selected Princeton over Stanford, he explains, “because at Stanford there was no one who shared my political foundation.”
At Princeton, Baehr saw a “political balance” lacking at other prestigious schools. “I was willing to be engaged with liberal professors, but I wanted to find some people with similar views,” he says.
Still, Baehr’s conservative friends and family expressed concern about his college choice.
“They told me, ‘Don’t let them convert you. Don’t come back a liberal,’” says Baehr.
He adds with a laugh, “Needless to say, their fears were calmed.”
It might seem comical that Baehr’s family ever worried Princeton would temper his convictions. One of Princeton’s most visible student conservatives, he’s the president of the College Republicans, former editor of the Princeton Tory, and founder of the Princeton chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, a national organization devoted to promoting conservatism on college campuses. This fall, his campaign for conservatism expands beyond FitzRandolph gate when he runs as the Republican candidate for the Princeton Borough Council.
Baehr serves as a spokesman for conservatism to the world beyond Princeton, as well. He has been quoted in articles about campus conservatism in publications ranging from the Yale Daily News to AgapePress, a Christian newswire service. Since his freshman year, Baehr has appeared twice in the New York Times to trumpet conservatism: first in January to express his concern that new Dean of Admissions Janet Rapelye “may be looking for people with green hair rather than the typical Brooks Brothers/J. Crew student”; most recently late last month to discuss his Borough Council campaign.
If anything, feeling like an ideological minority has strengthened Baehr’s belief in conservative ideals. He seems to relish his underdog status, using it as a rallying point for fellow conservatives.
“If I had been at a place where conservatives were not so disliked, I probably would not have become so passionate and involved,” Baehr admits.
And in his Council campaign, he uses his status as political minority to his advantage. As his campaign slogan (“Elect Evan: To Serve the Misrepresented Residents and The Unrepresented Students”) indicates, Baehr can claim to be oppressed on two fronts. Not only is he a Republican (and the last time a Republican served on the Council was 1990), but he is also a student. Although Princeton students have run for the Council in the past, most recently in 2001, no one has before launched a serious campaign, let alone a successful one.
“Generally, residents don’t like Princeton students to get involved in local politics,” says Baehr.
The title of Princeton Borough Councillor may not have the prestige of another office that Baehr hopes one day to hold: under “interests” on his facebook.com profile, Baehr includes—along with “elections,” “Christianity,” and “fine foods”—“becoming President”. Still, the Baehr for Council campaign is nothing if not serious. In this year’s election, the largest issue at stake for Princeton students is the notorious alcohol ordinance. If passed, the ordinance would allow police officers to enter the eating clubs on Prospect Avenue if they suspect underage drinking.
“If I’m not elected, this ordinance could pass without any student input,” warns Baehr. “That means that there could be police on the floor of the taprooms on Prospect, and there’s nothing we could do about it.”
The other matters under the Council’s jurisdiction are admittedly “less sexy” than the alcohol ordinance. They include the recent approval of the new library and parking garage in downtown Princeton, traffic and bicycle regulations, and parking rates in the Borough.
The Baehr campaign has two parts: one directed at students, run by five undergraduates. Baehr estimates that Princeton students comprise 40% of the electorate in the Borough. Thus, the first step of his on-campus campaign was to encourage students to register to vote in Princeton instead of requesting absentee ballots from their home states. Now that the deadline to register has passed, the campaign has started persuading students to vote for Baehr. Last week, they began handing out red, white, and blue, “Baehr for Council” pins, and they are planning a fundraiser for later this month.
The other part of Baehr’s campaign is aimed at Borough residents. This half of the campaign, funded by donations from Florida family and friends as well as Princeton Borough citizens, has a professional staff with whom Baehr has weekly meetings. On Monday, the campaign sent out a 1,600-piece direct mail to voters in the Borough. Last Thursday, the campaign launched a website (www.evanbaehr.com) that displays several professional-quality photographs of Baehr, along with a Baehr biography, links to articles about his campaign, a list of his stance on several issues, and a form for those who wish to get involved with the campaign.
“I hope to use the website as a way to hear from constituents. I am asking voters to send in their comments and suggestions for the Borough. I believe it is a way I can learn more about the desires of Princeton residents and give them access to their government,” says Baehr.
It might be questionable how oppressed conservatives really are at Princeton: as Jay Saxon, president of the College Democrats, put it, “Even the liberals here dress conservatively”. It’s probably true that liberals outnumber conservatives on the faculty: more than 90 percent of donations from University employees for this year’s elections have gone to liberal causes, the Daily Princetonian reported in September. Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence in the Politics Department and director of the conservative James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, said in a recent e-mail that he has “encountered a liberal bias in the academic world”, broadly speaking.
However, George added, “I personally have experienced very little bias or discrimination at Princeton. On the contrary, I have been treated fairly, even generously, here. … If someone asks: ‘Is Princeton a good place to be for a scholar who happens to hold conservative opinions and doesn’t want to hide them?’ I would reply ‘Princeton is a great place.’”
Still, Baehr’s strategy of using discrimination as a rallying point has been effective. Conservatism has a definite presence at Princeton, while the liberals can be so complacent no one notices them. The glossy, colorful Tory, well-funded by national right-wing organizations, inspires political dialogue (if only by having so combative a tone that its readers cannot help but discuss it), while its black-and-white liberal counterpart The Idealistic Nation is ignored. The College Republicans website features a moving image of the American flag and a photograph and biography for each of its officers; the bland College Democrats site promises that updated features are “coming soon.”
Baehr has also managed to gain the respect of ideological friends and foes alike.
“Evan is a very tactful guy. He can put things very diplomatically without compromising substance,” says John Andrews, who was publisher of the Tory when Baehr was editor.
Saxon also praises Baehr’s ability to get along with people, even those who do not share his political views.
“He’s willing to listen to people, which is a good quality for someone who wants to go into public policy,” says Saxon, who has worked with Baehr in their Wilson School task force and in P-Votes, this fall’s bipartisan voter registration drive.
It remains to be seen whether Baehr will have the same success in hawking conservatism to the residents of Princeton Borough, however. A September Council debate, organized by Saxon, drew about 40 students – a good crowd given it was a Thursday evening – and only a handful of borough residents. Baehr was dressed in presidential candidate uniform: blue suit, red tie, white collared shirt. His two opponents, Andrew Koontz and Roger Martindell—both middle-aged Democrat incumbents—were dressed considerably more casually: Koontz wore a tweed jacket, Martindell a grey polo shirt.
The candidates’ sartorial choices reflected their attitudes toward the debate. Koontz and Martindell remained relaxed, even complacent, throughout the event. They each spoke off the cuff and were eager to highlight the fact that they agreed with Baehr on many of the issues.
Baehr took a more aggressive approach.
“There are very important differences between me and my opponents,” he said at the beginning of the debate. “Be careful to pay attention to nuances. You need a student to protect your rights.”
Later in the debate, Martindell and Koontz both said they would like to see more Princeton students involved in local politics. Baehr responded, with a sneer and roll of the eyes: “An alternative way to get students involved is to put one on the council.”