Eric Johnson

Students hoping to influence legislation during the upcoming legislative session may have an additional avenue to work through thanks to a new bipartisan caucus.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, announced Friday the formation of the Young Texans Legislative Caucus in the Texas House of Representatives. The caucus will track and promote legislation affecting the 58 percent of Texans below the age of 40. In the Texas Legislature, caucuses serve as bodies around which members can organize to address the needs of a specific party, group or demographic.

Johnson, 37, said the caucus will create an organization through which young people, including college students, can voice their concerns and ideas on policies being discussed in the Legislature.

“This new caucus will serve as a natural outlet for student organizations seeking to directly engage with the legislature,” Johnson said. “The 1.4 million Texans in our higher education system are overwhelmingly a part of our target age demographic and we will be reaching out to student groups across the state after we get the caucus organized.”

Preston Covington, director of UT Student Government’s state relations agency, said he welcomes the announcement of the new caucus especially as Student Government prepares to play an active role in advocating for student issues during the upcoming legislative session.

“This will serve as another avenue that we will use to reach out and inform representatives about the issues we face,” Covington said.

Student Government, the Senate of College Councils, the Graduate Student Assembly and 25 other student organizations plan to organize students to lobby the Legislature through the “Invest in Texas” campaign — a nonpartisan program designed to advocate for adequate higher education funding.

The YTLC will be open to any representative 40 years old or younger or any representative who represents a district in which the percentage of those younger than 40 surpasses the state percentage. A total of 94 out of the 150 representatives are eligible to join the caucus through one of the two requirements, according to Johnson’s chief of staff Juan Ayala.

The YTLC will join the ranks of caucuses such as the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

Johnson pointed to specific issues such as education, infrastructure and management of natural resources that he hopes the new caucus can address on behalf of young Texans. He said he was motivated to create the caucus after looking at the composition of the state and House of Representatives.

“Nearly 6 in 10 Texans are 40 years of age or younger, and that demographic definitely deserves to have a stronger voice in our legislative deliberations,” Johnson said. “When I looked at the makeup of the House, I realized we had a solid core of younger members that we could organize around.”

Printed on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 as: New caucus created for young Texans

Spirit of Austin

Melissa Smith, English PhD student, and Carlos Tovias, senior mechanical engineer, teach each other dance moves at the Church of Latter Day Saints in Friday afternoon. Students were encouraged to study or play games after Friday lunches.

Photo Credit: Julia Bunch | Daily Texan Staff

In his campaign for president, Mitt Romney has come under scrutiny for his religion, Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For UT Mormons, Romney’s running is an opportunity for others to learn more about their religion.

About 300 18- to 30-year-olds attend classes at the Institute of Religion, a house of study for LDS Church members, said Institute Director Eric Johnson. The institute also houses Sunday services for single adults in that age range. Many participants are UT students, Johnson said.

“Politics and the media, they’re going to do what they’re going to do,” he said. “Members of the church are being given more opportunities to say ‘this is who we are and this is what we’ve been, and it points to the savior Jesus Christ.’”

The church is nonpartisan, and a lot of LDS Church members probably won’t vote for Romney, said health promotion senior Nick Elizondo. He attends classes at the institute but goes to another church service for families with his wife. The LDS Church divides its congregations by age and geography.

“The church doesn’t encourage party affiliation, but it does encourage us to participate in the voting process,” Elizondo said. “Romney’s campaign is a great opportunity for people to learn about the church, but Romney is just a member like any of us.”

Romney’s political campaign has corresponded with the arrival of the “I Am A Mormon” ad campaign in Austin last month. The videos feature people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives sharing their experience with the faith and encourage viewers to go to mormon.org for more information. English doctoral student Melissa Smith said she learns about her own faith by watching the videos by others.

For example, Smith said she was surprised to see a video by The Killers lead singer Brandon Flowers because his song lyrics sometimes diverge from Mormon values. But everyone lives their faith differently, she said.

“I was reading a profile of someone from a different culture, and the person was talking about a particular principle, and I learned more about that principle and why we live it than I had understood ever,” Smith said. “I learned what it was like to live the Gospel from a different cultural perspective.”

Both the Romney presidential run and the I Am a Mormon campaign are giving LDS Church members the chance to share their faith, students said. For many, that simply means clarifying that the LDS Church is a Christian church and not a cult, as one Dallas Baptist pastor pronounced with regard to Romney.

Brian Seigfried and Lucas Brook are elders at UT. Many LDS men go on two-year missions to evangelize in their late teens and early 20s. They agreed that Austin feels like home and get positive reception from those they speak to — whether in formal meetings or in random encounters around campus.

“I love the ad campaign, it clears up a lot of misconceptions that people have about this church,” Brook said. “It helps when we’re out talking to people, they see us and say ‘oh, these are the Mormons.’”

Evangelizing serves an important function in the church, since many members come to LDS later in life, they said. For example, Elizondo said he joined the church when he was 18 after growing up Presbyterian. The classes at the Institute helped him understand Biblical scripture in a new way, he said, and he finds spiritual growth in reading the Book of Mormon as well.

“With a real study of the scriptures, I was very much drawn to the church, and I prayed to know if the church was the church that the Lord would have me join,” Elizondo said. “I felt true conviction in my heart that that is what I needed to do.”

As controversy and growing awareness of the church continue, students at the Institute said they’ll continue to try to live out their faith by being kind to others and following Jesus’ message.

Printed on November 7, 2011: Mormon religion put in national spotlight because of Romney's presidential candidacy

Joe Satriani performs at a benefit concert in Austin on Monday night. Fire Rel

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

Texas musical legends Willie Nelson and George Strait donated their time and talent to aid Bastrop residents in rebuilding their community during a benefit concert held at the Frank Erwin Center Monday night.

Fire Relief: The Concert for Central Texas, was proposed by American guitarist Eric Johnson as a way to raise money for the community of Bastrop in light of September’s wildfires.

UT joined with the Frank Erwin Center, The Medina Group, the Austin Community Foundation and various Texas musicians in organizing the event, hosted by screenwriter and actor Turk Pipkin and actor Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights.

“We’ll get through this,” Johnson said. “The sun will shine and everything will be alright.”

According to western musician Ray Benson, Johnson started the idea of getting together the benefit concert in hopes of rebuilding not only the homes of the Bastrop victims, but also their spirits.

“Bastrop county will survive, it will come back from this,” Bastrop fire chief Henry Perry said.

Tickets, T-shirts and all proceeds gained from the concert went towards the Texas Wildfire Relief Fund. About 24,000 people attended the concert and raised about $500,000 for the victims.

The concert began with a performance by Chris Cross and proceeded with performances by Johnson, Benson, Terri Hendrix, Joe Satriani, the Texas Tornados, the Randy Rogers Band, Asleep at the Wheel, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Willie Nelson, the Avett Brothers and the Dixie Chicks. George Strait ended the night with a few popular songs and thanked the audience for their support.

“People came from all over the country and all on their own time just to be here for this benefit concert,” Pipkin said.

Pipkin and Chandler encouraged the audience to donate what they could to the relief fund between each act, and short films and documentaries were shown of the victims and their losses. After each film, an advertisement encouraging a minimum donation of $10 to the relief fund was displayed on the screens.

Pipkin said the benefit concert could not have been so successful without the voluntary efforts of the musicians and sponsors.

“The goal was to help people effected by the fire regain their livelihood,” Pipkin said. “This fire is not going to get us down.”