As the midterm elections draw closer, Americans seem more divided than ever. But Penn State seniors, roommates and best friends Reagan McCarthy and Katierose Epstein share a bond that crosses the aisle even in today’s polarized climate.
McCarthy is the president of the Penn State College Republicans and Epstein is the president of the College Democrats.
The women met in the spring of their freshman year on opposing sides of a debate between their clubs. The topic was federal funding of Planned Parenthood, and the encounter wasn’t exactly friendly.
“It was pretty spicy, and fiery,” McCarthy said. “There’s a really great photo in Daily Collegian of me sitting there like this looking down and her just like screaming at me to take my morals elsewhere.”
But the two met a couple days later in the HUB student center, exchanged phone numbers and began talking. Both worked on political campaigns the following summer, and they bonded over the trials and tribulations of the job.
“Campaign work is hard and exhausting, so we’d text each other and complain about voter registration and canvassing all summer long,” Epstein said.
McCarthy and Epstein have extensive political resumes dating back to high school. Each has worked on multiple campaigns for federal office, held several positions in her club and has experience with major political nonprofits.
The presidents also lead weekly meetings for their clubs.
“Our mission is essentially to promote both on campus and off the Democratic Party of the United States of America, its ideals and its philosophies,” said Epstein, rallying her troops at the first College Democrats meeting of the semester. “So essentially, we’re just trying to get Democrats elected to fix this country.”
McCarthy made her pitch to students and community members at a recent street fair.
“The mission of the College Republicans is to spread conservative values on campus and engage students that, you know, might have conservative views and might be too afraid to speak up,” she said. “And of course to elect Republican candidates as well.”
As might be expected, McCarthy and Epstein don’t agree on much. But they avoid the attacks on each other’s character that are so common on a national level. And once the debate is over, they’re still friends.
“I feel like I’m able to connect with Republicans really well now, because, like, I’m best friends with one of them,” said Epstein. “So, like, I get it and I understand why they think the way they think. I’m not going to agree with it, but I can have a civilized discussion.”
One issue that does bring the two presidents together is the direction of State College’s local government. McCarthy and Epstein have fought for a more pro-student borough council. They both supported councilman Dan Murphy, who ran on that issue in the 2017 election.
“We both voted for Dan for Borough Council and handed out lit and wore shirts and it was super cool,” said McCarthy. “It was the first and probably only candidate that we’ll ever mutually support, but that was a fun day.”
Cooperation between Republicans and Democrats on a national or even state level may be rare nowadays, but McCarthy and Epstein work together all the time. The College Republicans and College Democrats hold debates between their clubs about once a month during the school year. They also run joint voter registration drives.
“I love that our organizations work together,” Epstein said. “We wouldn’t be the organizations we are without working together. Community members love it, professors love it, students love it. It’s just a really awesome thing that we’re able to do and I think now more than ever.”
Epstein says she’s better off because of her interparty friendship.
“It is helpful to have a friend on the other side of the spectrum because I learn what I agree with and disagree with much faster than just like an echo chamber,” she said.
McCarthy also changed her approach in political conversations partly because of her best friend.
“I think that when I debate or have a policy conversation with someone I take like a more civil tone than myself before coming to college,” she said.
The two club presidents may not be voting for the same candidates on Nov. 6, but come Nov. 7, they’ll still be roommates and friends.