Scott Lay had a choice: keep paying $300 telephone bills, or jump on the on-line computer bandwagon.
To a 21-year-old college Democrat on a tight budget with a need to network with other young politicians, it was an easy decision. Now when Lay finishes a few hours of work at a local hospital, he sits down at his PC to write his quasi-weekly, late-night political catharsis for the world to read.
Lay puts out an electronic newsletter through the Internet, a worldwide collection of several thousand computer networks. His paperless letter shoots into the computer mailboxes of about 100 people throughout the world--not counting the thousands of browsers who can skim his newsletter on any of several computer bulletin boards that can be reached with a modem.
He bills it "The Donkey's Mouth: The Newsletter of College Dems in Cyberspace." With chatter ranging from the latest doings of Gov. Pete Wilson to the dirt on Whitewater--not to mention a memorial of late grunge rocker Kurt Cobain--Lay's letter is free to anyone with an Internet connection.
As a last jab at his home, he always signs the newsletter "Alive and Kicking from Behind the Orange Curtain." All this from his computer headquarters, a.k.a. his Placentia home, less than three miles from the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.
"I get more motivated when I think I'm putting this out from Orange County," Lay said recently, sipping an iced mocha and wearing a pin pushing an upcoming state ballot initiative. "But then, I have to admit I got the idea from a college Republican newsletter based out of Berkeley, of all places."
Lay, an Orange Coast College student who goes by the computer name politico , uses the letter to ask other students to pressure legislators to approve laws improving collegiate education and increasing college funding. The newsletter is a political springboard for him as well: In April, Lay was elected to be statewide president of the California College Democrats.
It hasn't always been a life of political gamesmanship for Lay, who probably is one of the few young, local community college students to tote both a backpack and a leather briefcase.
Just two years ago, when he was considering going into medicine, he and his OCC classmate Paul Mitchell were talking over a cup of coffee about how to get their fellow students to vote. Neither had ever been politically active.
"I wasn't even in student government in high school," said Lay, a graduate of Valencia High School in Placentia. "I was into drama."
Lay and Mitchell put together a voter registration campaign at OCC. "We're well aware we were registering more Republicans than Democrats, but the important thing was that students were registering," Lay said.
Talking about voting and political awareness fired them up to start the Orange Coast College Democrats Club in 1992, he said.
"I don't think that either of us would be doing half of what we do without the support of each other," Mitchell said.
Sharon Donoff, vice president of student services at OCC, said Lay has rallied students to organize and pay attention to statewide issues. "The Democratic club has been the most active political club we've had on campus since I've been here," said Donoff, who has worked for the college since 1971.
Lay got a taste of statewide politics with the nonpartisan California Student Assn. of Community Colleges, a group that recently elected Mitchell as its president. As the group's current legislative chairman, Lay often hops on commuter flights to lobby state legislators in Sacramento.
The political bug led him to work as a student organizer in the Clinton presidential campaign as well.
"The night before the 1992 election, Paul and I were putting up signs on Fairview (Street) at 3:15 a.m." for the Clinton-Gore ticket and Senate candidates Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Lay said. "We put up signs on public property, which is perfectly legal, and we drove down the street. When we came back, the signs were gone. We couldn't figure it out.
"Then we saw a car slowly following behind us, and guys were tearing the signs down. Luckily, the Costa Mesa police caught wind of what was going on at about 4 o'clock," Lay said.
Officers stopped the youths trailing Lay's car, scolded them and let them go, Lay said. "I'm glad the police got involved because maybe fists would've gotten involved," he said with a laugh.
Staying up late is typical for Lay, who said he gets about four or five hours of sleep a night. After a day of tutoring, studying and working as a clerk at Children's Hospital of Orange County, he sits down at the computer to exchange messages with computer users in the Midwest or East Coast.
"It's good to know what students in Minnesota are doing, for example," he said. "How are they dealing with issues?"
Before, he spent time on the telephone talking to people. Now, he subscribes to an Internet carrier to link his computer to others by telephone, at a much lower rate.
For all the ballyhoo about the "information superhighway," Lay does have one concern: that everyone should be able to use it regardless of class. "As we go to more of an information-based society, we have to think about how to make sure everyone can have access to it," he said.
The topic quickly spins back to the newsletter. An avant-garde 'zine it's not; but in it, readers might find a tongue-in-cheek "check your political leanings" quiz or random notes submitted by a member of a liberal party in Canada. There are few content rules.
"You know, the beautiful thing about it is there's no editor," he said. "If people don't like it, they can bypass it. I can do what I want with it.
"The best thing about it is hearing the responses," he said. "One person said, 'I've been waiting for a newsletter like this to come out but I never expected it to come from Orange County.' "
Nearing the end of his stint at OCC--extended to three years because of illnesses caused by an immune deficiency--Lay will move to UC Davis in the fall to study political science. But he's not sure about the next step.
"I don't know if I want to go into politics," Lay said. "I like policy. I like teaching. It's like, 'Should I make a right turn or a left?'
"Of course," he said wryly, "I always make a left."