Less than two weeks before the November general election, candidates took time to go back to school.
Dozens of Columbia River High School students filed into a spacious library Tuesday and Wednesday to hear aspiring politicians touch on the value of being civically engaged. Civics teachers extended an invitation to all candidates included in the 2022 general election voters’ pamphlet, and a handful responded – including congressional candidates Joe Kent and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez.
The forum also featured candidates vying for county and state positions. Hector Hinojosa, Clark County Council District 1, John Zingale, 18th Legislative District House Position 1, and Duncan Camacho, 18th Legislative District House Position 2, participated on the first day; Jeremy Baker, 49th District House Position 2, Glen Yung, Clark County Council District 1, and Greg Cheney, 18th District House Position 2, joined students on the second.
Although the forum was designed to be nonpartisan and educational, there were faint hints of partisanship in some candidates’ replies. However, they held a unanimous belief that was fitting for their audience: young people can wield influence in a democracy, even before they are old enough to vote.
“Make sure you vote, get into groups, find out what’s out there, join your neighborhood association,” Yung said. “They know what’s happening in your neighborhood and they can be your voice for something bigger.”
Voter apathy is common among younger people. In the 2021 general election, only 14.7 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in Clark County returned a ballot, according to the Washington secretary of state’s office. The most engaged voters were older than 65.
A close look at government
David Douglas, a social studies and civics teacher who led the charge in hosting and organizing this week’s events, spoke as if it wasn’t a shock that the school was able to wrangle candidates like Kent and Perez during a busy election cycle.
“I’ve always operated under the assumption that people want to talk to high school classes,” he said. “Most of the time when I ask people to come and speak to one of my classes, they’ll say ‘Sure, I was just waiting for you to tell me when!’”
Following a change approved by the stateLegislature in 2020, Washington schools are required to provide a one-credit (one semester) class that informs students on what civic responsibility and political engagement at the various levels of government looks like. This forum, Douglas said, was essentially a perfect opportunity for students to hear from candidates at local, state and federal levels just as they ramp up for Election Day.
Students filled out an assignment sheet where they chose four candidates, researched their backgrounds and positions and came up with prospective questions to ask. Douglas and fellow teachers took it upon themselves to relay some of those questions directly to candidates.
Some students’ eyes glazed over, whereas others fiddled with their paper and pencil. But most who were present listened intently, some with a raised brow, when candidates replied to their questions. Across the two days, a handful of key issues became recurring talking points:
Bolstering trade programs
One of the most unifying issues from the two days was a focus on expanding K-12 education in trades and allowing students to get dual credit opportunities for apprenticeship work. One recent proposition to the Legislature from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction earlier this year would seek to take a step in that direction.
Perez, a Democrat who co-owns a Portland auto repair shop with her husband, reinforced the notion that providing incentives centered around trade jobs can create more pathways for post-secondary education. Furthermore, it can ultimately boost a local economy that is dependent on skilled trades.
“No one in China is going to fix your plumbing for you,” she said. “That’s an American job and it stays American.”
Perez continued to advocate for scholarship opportunities like the Pell Grant to be extended to those who are not pursuing just two- or four-year degrees.
Cheney, a Republican running for the 18th Legislative District House seat, agreed with Perez, explaining that such opportunities in the trades should be articulated in the Legislature.
“The pendulum swung way too far, I think in the ’90s and early 2000s, to that four-year college degree model,” Cheney said.
“We’ve got to make a lot of changes in the Legislature. But most importantly, we need to make sure that we are signaling that we value these jobs.”
Students pressed the candidates for federal and state offices on their stances on reproductive rights, voicing concerns for the strength of state protections in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
In one back-and-forth with a student, Kent, a Republican who has repeatedly asserted his stance as anti-abortion, said the decision to protect those rights should be left to the states.
“I think the federal government should stay out of it. There shouldn’t be federal money going to fund abortions by the state right now,” he said.
When asked similar questions Wednesday, Perez said she’d be a fierce defender of abortion rights in Washington and asked students to imagine how laws may actually be enacted — not just the principle behind them.
“People in Washington are too calm about this issue… We should think about what (lawmakers) mean when they say that how will that be implemented,” Perez said. “Is the sheriff going to come to my door the next day and ask me ‘So, what really happened?’”
All candidates pointed toward a need to prioritize local interests in discussions surrounding sustainable infrastructure and renewable energy. With a move to electric and hybrid cars, for example, candidates generally said it’d be best to prioritize an initial assessment of whether sweeping bans on gasoline-fueled vehicles are in the interests of those in Southwest Washington.
“We need to be future-ready,” Zingale said. “When we’re building buildings, are we building them with solar panels? Are we building the infrastructure so we can charge our cars? Are we putting in those pieces ahead of time? If we try to retrofit everything, we’re just going to spend even more money later on down the road.”
Perez mentioned that while a move toward electric cars might be environmentally friendly, it’s not realistic for those like herself living in rural areas, where the nearest charging station could be 20 miles from her home. Yung agreed, adding that policies should not be enacted without first considering if they’re attainable in the near future.
“We need to really be careful with our policies, so we don’t make some of the same mistakes that our country has traditionally made throughout its history,” Yung said.
“The reality is, if you live in an apartment, are you going to be able to charge that electric car?”
Students said meeting the candidates helped them relate to them. “Opening up things in this setting really humanizes these people,” said senior Zack Dunne.
“I liked hearing from them firsthand,” added senior Conrad Kallwick. “Commercials often feel like lies, they’re like propaganda.”
A handful of eager students didn’t hold back when given the opportunity to ask questions, pressing the panel — particularly Kent and Perez — on hot-button issues.
Dunne, who was one of those eager students, added that he had high hopes for the event but wished it could have featured a bit more interactive discussion.
“A discussion is supposed to be back and forth, but I wasn’t able to add my follow-up question,” he said. Dunne’s question was directed at Kent, probing the Republican congressional candidate to explain his stance as a pro-American candidate despite previous expressions of support for Vladimir Putin.
Dunne was visibly eager to retort and raised his hand a second time later in the forum, but was encouraged to let other students share their thoughts, too. At the end, he said his disappointment for the format didn’t outweigh the overall benefit of what students learned Tuesday.
“Most people don’t go on the news, you see a lot of kids get miseducated,” he said. “I think we should have a lot more of these.”