Students Supporting Local Candidates in November Election

Students at political forum in Washington Depot

Students from Bart McMann's Honors U.S. Government and Politics class and members of the school's Gray Party served as moderators and timekeepers at a candidate forum co-sponsored by the Washington Democratic Town Committee and the Washington Republican Town Committee on October 10 at Bryan Memorial Town Hall.

The forum featured Democrat Michelle Gorra and Republican Jim Brinton, who are candidates for First Selectman, and Democrat Jay Hubelbank and Republican Sarah Gager, who are candidates for the Board of Selectmen. Only three of the four can be elected to the town's top leadership positions in the municipal election set for November 5. The students did a great job and represented the school “extremely well,” said moderator Henry Martin.

The school was contacted jointly by Gorra and Brinton, who sought to involve Gunnery students in the campaign process, McMann said. Both Gorra and Brinton visited his class on October 8 to present their stump speeches and answer questions. Students were divided into two groups to serve as campaign staff members for the two candidates. They are also canvassing and registering voters on campus who are eligible to participate in the election using some of the newest techniques to “get out the vote,” which McMann gleaned from experts he met at the 2019 Summer Institute of Civic Studies at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. McMann hopes to extend the students' efforts to help increase voter registration and participation in the town of Washington.

“I volunteered to help mediate because I thought it was an awesome opportunity to engage in local politics and learn more about the town of Washington,” said Juliette Gaggini '20. “I learned a lot about how local politics work, specifically in Washington. After meeting with the two candidates during class last Tuesday, I learned more about the role and position that the town's first selectman has, which was helpful going into the debate on Thursday. During the debate, I heard about the campaigns of both candidates and learned a lot about the political climate in Washington, as well as the goals of their campaigns.”

The students' participation in the candidate forum was the first initiative under the school's new Center for Ethics, Leadership, and Civic Engagement, which is supported by a $100,000 matching grant from the Edward E. Ford Foundation. McMann, who has been tapped to serve as the center's director beginning in the 2020-21 academic year, said the experience was valuable in that it gave students an opportunity to interact with people who believe in public service and care about the community. “They met local people who want to work together to ensure the Washington community is a vibrant place for their family and friends,” McMann said.

Students noticed that the candidates appeared to have few differences on the issues despite their party affiliations, “which to me signaled this wasn't about party but about humans growing and living together and supporting each other. There was a true humanity to the discussion rather than just partisanship,” McMann said.

This level of discourse and civic engagement illustrated the reason that Anthony Cochrane '18, a Republican, and Mark Choi '18, a Democrat, founded the school's Gray Party. While students have been carrying forth their effort in subsequent years – by hosting a 2017 forum for gubernatorial candidates, registering students to vote, and sponsoring “Red/Blue Workshops” on campus last year hosted by the national bipartisan group Better Angels  – this was the first time students have observed a live political forum in which the candidates were not polarized or divided by stereotypes.

“They saw grown-ups trying to wrestle through difficult issues like how much should the town should actually pay for public schooling as the number of students are declining and the cost continues to increase,” McMann said.

“There was a question about how both public and private schools could bolster engagement in the town,” he said, noting that one of the interesting responses on the part of the candidates was that students could attend Board of Selectmen meetings in an effort to understand some of the issues the town is facing. “Another piece that came out of that, too, was that one of the town's major initiatives is to create a senior center. The new Center for Ethics, Leadership, and Civic Engagement, could be a place to engage seniors in town, so students can learn from their experience,” he said.

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