The League of Young Voters

Second Take: The view from the podium at the League Debate — By Justin Ellis
March 31, 2008, 5:15 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

 [Cross-posted from Justin’s blog at the Portland Press Herald:]

It was shortly after I walked into the SPACE Gallery Wednesday night when Nat May, the gallery’s executive director, asked me if I wanted a shot of whiskey.

Figuring for the night ahead – moderating the debate among the seven candidates running in the First District Congressional race, reading the questions, and speaking in front of a live studio audience – it seemed like it might be a good idea.

I’ve had my fair share of public speaking engagements over the years, starting with student council in high school and more recently in panel discussions on the press or journalism workshops for young writers.

But this is politics, and that means people’s ideals, passions and futures are in the mix. For the candidates it’s another opportunity to present themselves to the public, share their views and beliefs and distance themselves from their peers.

For the public it’s part of the bigger process of taking
part in what our civics and history teachers often called “our civic duty.”

And in the middle of it is just me, playing equal parts traffic cop and Bob Barker.

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Having been to League debates before (usually to write something), I knew they are a decent draw and almost always lively. It was no different at SPACE, as people came early to catch a seat, and in many cases supporters of different campaigns and various groups set up cameras to record the event.

This of course was on top of the cameras already set up by Portland Community Television Network.

As candidates trickled in they made a point to introduce themselves, but in many cases we’ve met before, thanks to my job. Ruth Summers, who was speaking in her husband’s stead, foreshadowed the charm and humor she would use throughout the evening when she jokingly offered to “slip me a $20 for only easy questions!”

Meanwhile the room continued to fill up, some with faces I knew (and had written about), but many more I had not. Though the League is directed at young voters in name, the debate was a collection of young and old, the die-hard politicos and junkies, as well as some that were new to the process.

Interestingly enough, SPACE’s bar remained open to serve the crowd. It was around this time I sent a few dispatches across the Twitter Wire:
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The clock closed in on 7 p.m., and with a few words of introduction from Bobby Reynolds from the Professional Firefighters of Maine, I was at the podium.

That’s when the sweat started.

“If elections are the heartbeat of our society, then free and open debate must be the air it needs to breathe. And it all comes down to you, raising your voice, raising your hand and asking questions.”OK, so maybe it’s a little cheesy and too civics class-esque for a room full of adults, but it sounded good when I wrote it up earlier in the day. Also, I happen to think it’s the truth.

I made it through the opening and before I knew it we were off to the questions, some from the League and the firefighters, and then a punchbowl o’ questions from other community groups.

Along the way a funny thing happened, I entered a state of calm sweat. Aside from butchering the word “immunizing” in one question, things were going smoothly and I stuck to my one rule for the evening – stay out of the candidates’ way.

With a stage full of seven people all trying to make their case to the audience with different backgrounds, opinions and policy plans, the best thing I could do was just let them go.

Still, with a 60-second cap on responses, there was more than one occasion where I was tempted to break the rule to remind candidates of their time limit. But hey, if you’re running for office you should probably be able to play by the rules, right?

By many definitions it was a good debate, we got through a lot of questions and covered plenty of ground, including immunity for telecommunication companies on warrantless wiretapping, reducing health care cost for middle-income Americans, withdrawing troops from Iraq, action to save benefits for public safety workers as well as union members, prescription drug costs and making cannonball runs to Canada, and the list goes on.

One area noticeably difficult for the audience and candidates was that candidates didn’t have much of a chance to respond to questions or statements from their peers unless they took time from their responses to other questions.

The flip side of that – and perhaps the highlight of the evening – was the new League tradition of allowing candidates to ask one question to another candidate.

Did it change any minds, sway votes or help one candidate gain ground over another? Tough to say, and I’m not a political reporter. I’m barely a moderator.

All told I’d say the people at SPACE and those who watched (and will watch again) on Portland Community Television Network got a good dose of edu-tainment for the evening. Since there is plenty of time left before the June 10 party primaries, I’d say there will be more chances for people to make their choice.

As for me, I took away that doing your civic duty can be fun and incredibly engaging. I learned that if I ever need a second career I’ve got a stable enough hand and sure voice that I could probably hawk products or become a talking head. (Look out Joel Stein.) I discovered that purple is a bold tie choice that will draw lots of compliments.

More importantly I learned a lot of people – those who run for office and those who support them – care about their community, its future and who will help shape that future through our government.

Also, I remembered why I skip the pre-game liquid courage – the first drink of the evening always tastes so much better in celebration…and relief.


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