5 questions for Joe Liberti, teacher with eye on politics

Joe Liberti is in his 12th year teaching social studies at Mamaroneck High School. He teaches four sections of advanced-placement U.S. Government and Politics — and specializes in getting his students to see the real thing. He took his classes to New Hampshire in 2012 for the Republican presidential primary and last year to Washington, to see how Congress operates. This fall, with Election Day coming Tuesday, his students have been working for the political campaigns of their choice.

Q: People must assume that your name is pronounced “liberty?”

A: Yes, students often say “You should be Mr. Liberty because you teach about government.” But it’s Li-BER-ti.

Q: Why do you want your students to get involved in politics?

A: I want them to understand that participation matters. And that they have the skills right now to volunteer and work in politics. Volunteering demystifies the process. They have to understand that policymakers pay attention to those who participate. I also want them to see that policymakers, regardless of party affiliation, are looking to do what’s best for their constituents. I want them to humanize politicians.

Q: But most people are so down on politics, right?

A: People just hate politics right now. There is tremendous disdain. It is a huge problem. This generation is probably more cynical than past generations and more distrustful. If we don’t engage them now, I am fearful about the future. They’ll disconnect completely or just demonize the other side.

Q: How did you get your students to choose campaigns to volunteer for?

A: I put together a bulletin listing campaigns relevant to them and said, “You decide where you want to spend your time.” Four chose (Gov. Andrew) Cuomo, three (Republican gibernatorial candidate Rob) Astorino, 10 (U.S. Rep. Nita) Lowey, 41 (Democratic state Senate candidate George) Latimer, 10 (Republican state Senate candidate Joseph) Dillon, and 16 went for Democratic candidates for the Mamaroneck village Board of Trustees. The high number for Latimer makes sense because he was the assemblyperson for our district, and is a well known face and name.”

Q: How have your students responded?

A: Some were taken aback by the tone, the tenor, of the Latimer/Dillon debates, how forceful they were, if you will. And they didn’t understand some of the issues — Tier 5 and Tier 6 (in the public employees’ retirement system), why abortion comes up, the ballot questions, those kinds of things. They write down their questions. It’s been an education for them. They’re interested in the governor’s race — a few went to the event where Cuomo endorsed Latimer — but they are most focused on the campaigns they’re working for. They’re invested. I think it’s great.