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Pasadena campus savors role in Kerry flap

Times Staff Writer

When Natalie Courtney learned that Sen. John Kerry would join gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides at a forum she had set up at Pasadena City College, she was thrilled. Courtney, president of the college’s Associated Students, hoped that the event would focus public attention on a subject of great importance to her classmates: the high cost of a college education.

But the event won’t be remembered for any discussion of college fees.

In his now infamous Oct. 30 speech, Kerry told students that they should seize educational opportunities, adding that “if you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Republicans quickly seized on the remark as critical of the men and women serving in the war. Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, insisted that he had simply botched a joke intended as a swipe at the president.

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A week later, as pundits continued debating whether Kerry’s remarks would affect today’s election, Courtney had few regrets about the forum that thrust her school into the national limelight.

“This is great publicity,” said Courtney, 21. “Maybe it will even help our enrollment. I’d like us to be known as a place for more politicians to visit.”

College officials also seemed pleased that the two-year school of 28,000 students had gained so much attention.

“For a community college to get this kind of exposure is a public relations dream,” said Juan Gutierrez, a school spokesman.

The last time the college generated half as much attention, students said, was when “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria bruised her ribs while leaving her trailer during a shoot on campus.

On Monday, the dimly lighted student lounge where Kerry had spoken a week earlier was nearly empty, with the exception of a few glassy-eyed students sprawled on sofas reading textbooks.

Courtney said the event was proposed by Angelides, whose campaign staff called the Associated Students a week before the event and said that they would like to reach out to students on campus.

Courtney said organizers agreed, hoping that the forum would provide an opportunity for students to ask questions about the candidate’s views on college tuition.

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“That never happened,” she said. “It was just a photo op.”

Some students said they were told to cheer on cue for the cameras and to remind their peers on stage with Angelides to keep smiling.

“The whole thing was ridiculous,” said Kosal Taing, 19. “The students were just props.”

Angelides spokesman Nick Papas said there was not enough time for questions and answers after the speeches.

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Taing’s friend, Bobby Chan, was pleased that the politicians visited his school.

“Most people don’t know who we are,” said Chan, 19.

Now they do.

About 330 people attended the event and many were turned away and asked to listen to the speeches in another room with a video feed.

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Though Kerry’s words set off a rush of criticism from Republicans, students in the lounge Monday who heard the speech said they believed that the remark was an oratorical mistake. If anything, they were shocked by how much Kerry was scolded and how long the remarks have dominated discussion among news pundits.

“It was a sham,” Courtney said. “But I’m still proud they were here. I feel bad for Kerry.”

Courtney said she also invited Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to speak to students on campus, but his aides declined the offer.

Courtney said the campus learned a lesson last week. “I think for the students who were there, it showed how much b.s. there is in politics,” Courtney said. “It showed how a small statement could turn into a catastrophe and create so much hysteria.”

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Chris Renzullo, a 21-year-old engineering student, said he wanted to do an art project using the podium Kerry had stood behind. He said he would paste news and opinion articles from both sides of the issue on the lectern to show how a gaffe such as Kerry’s could be politically exploited. He said he would name the artwork “Catharsis.”

Renzullo wasn’t sorry, though, about the controversy that enveloped his campus.

“It makes me feel a little better about being here,” he said. “It feels like any community college is going to be considered less significant. But the fact PCC is in the news may elevate our cultural significance. Maybe we can even get more people to vote.”

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david.pierson@latimes.com


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