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The Boston Globe

Activist Won't Seek Election, Launches Voter Turnout Drive

By Katheleen Conti, GLOBE STAFF

December 18, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

LAWRENCE - Isabel Melendez is as big in Lawrence as a local celebrity can get. Although she does not act like it, Melendez is fully aware of her status in the community she has actively helped since her arrival in 1959.

So when it came time to announce Sunday that she would not run for mayor again after a historic runner-up campaign two years ago (she was the first Latino to make it that far), Melendez called all local media and about 50 of her closest friends and supporters.

But in typical Melendez fashion,the 66-year-old community activist did not make the news about herself. Melendez also announced in her native Spanish that she would not be using her popularity to endorse any candidates for any position because she wants to avoid a conflict of interest for her next major endeavor - making sure Lawrence has one of the highest voter turnouts in the state.

"The latest election depressed me,' ' Melendez said, referring to the local elections that managed to attract only 15 percent of the voters in the September preliminary and 24 percent in last month's election.' 'After those elections, with such a low percentage, I had to do something."

Melendez, who said her fire for community activism was fueled by her own frustrations trying to make a good life for herself in Lawrence after emigrating from Puerto Rico, has been personally registering local residents to vote for several years. Now she hopes to take that a step further with a volunteer program that will go beyond registrations. Although the plan is in its infancy, Melendez said that in a nutshell, she envisions a team of volunteers on election days combing voter lists and asking those who haven't voted to please come out.

"It will benefit the community as a whole," she said.." Since my arrival here, I've noticed that the voter-participation percentage has gone down. And it 's not just Latinos; it 's everyone in Lawrence. I want to motivate everyone to vote."

Anyone who knows the petite Melendez would not be surprised to .nd out she has her eyes set on an even bigger goal: making Lawrence a state model for voter participation. She hopes that in its first year, with the presidential and state elections, her plan doubles the turnout rate.

"When the governor sees that we're at 45 percent voter turnout, we're going to be noted as an example," Melendez said..

Although presidential elections tend to have the highest voter turnout, the presidential and state primaries happen in different months.

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