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From Health Care To Tech, Profs Advise Obama

This story was written by Colin Kavanaugh, Daily Pennsylvanian

For some professors, supporting Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama extends beyond the ballot box.

Across the country, thousands of professors - several on Penn's campus - are advising the Obama campaign on a number of issues as part of policy committees.

The committees are volunteer-based groups of experts designed to formulate comprehensive policy positions, said Obama campaign spokesman Zach Friend.

The committees combine experts from all fields and ask them to help craft policy proposals, which the campaign then examines. The professors are not paid for their work.

There are about 3,000 policy advisers working with the Obama campaign, an "unprecedented" number, said Penn Law professor Wendell Pritchett, who advises the campaign on urban policy issues.

The level of involvement with the campaign varies from professor to professor. For Penn professors, work has included briefing the campaign on issues, drafting policy papers, working on speeches and leading discussion groups.

A spokesman for Republican presidential nominee John McCain could not say whether Penn professors are advising the campaign.

Kevin Werbach, a Legal Studies and Business Ethics professor, was contacted by the Obama campaign in March 2007 and was asked to join its technology policy committee. Werbach said he had "some friends in common" with Obama from Harvard Law School.

Since then, Werbach said, the "policy committee has gone through a lot of transformations." The committee has grown from about 20 people to more than 400, allowing the campaign to seek advice from experts on a wider range of topics.

Penn Law professor Tobias Wolff is one of the chairmen of the National LGBT Steering and Policy Committee.

Wolff was asked to chair the committee by Heather Higginbottom, the head of policy for Obama's campaign and someone he worked with when he was an adviser to Sen. John Kerry in his 2004 presidential campaign.

Wolff said he "jumped" at the chance to advise the Obama campaign because, "I wouldn't have to compromise at all in my beliefs," he said.

But Wolff, who is openly gay, said these issues have a personal significance for him.

He even disagrees with Obama on the legalization of same-sex marriage. Obama supports civil unions but not marriage while Wolff said only marriage will represent "full equal treatment under state law."

But that hasn't diminished his support for the campaign or his role as an adviser.

He said his work "as a scholar and as a civil rights lawyer" is consistent with his work for Obama.

Sociology professor Camille Charles, an adviser on issues of urban and metropolitan policy, said academics are able to provide "empirical" insight to these issues that other experts may lack.

While academics may harbor their own partisan beliefs, their research is "empirically neutral" and "non-partisan," she said.

Professors also said they believe advising is the best way for them to get involved in the campaign.

Obama has widespread support among professors, said internal medicine professor Judith Long, who advises the campaign on health care policy.

"When people heard that this was an opportunity, they said, 'Count me in,'" she said.

But with just 12 days before Election Day, the campaign is now encouraging advisers to focus on getting out the vote.

"We need to turn these ideas into votes," said Law student Olivier Kamanda, who works with the foreign policy committee. "If we can't, none of this matters."

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