The last ten days or so have seen the University of Rhode Island Kingston campus more political than usual, playing host to a gubernatorial debate on Monday the 15th and a senatorial debate on Saturday the 20th. I had the privilege to help cover both of them, and as somebody who has a great interest in the political scene (especially in Rhode Island), I found both to be fascinating.
There were certainly some marked differences between the two events. The first thing that I noticed was the differences in the demographic of who showed up to each debate. The gubernatorial debate, held on a Monday night, drew a far younger and more diverse crowd than the senatorial debate, held on a Saturday night. Looking back, I wasn’t as surprised with the apparent lack of younger people at Saturday’s debate, because most college students have better things to do on a weekend night than go to a debate.
Saturday’s crowd, however, was also much whiter than the one from Monday, which did come as a bit of a shock to me. From what I could hear from my seat it also seemed as though Flanders’s supporters were far more vocal than Whitehouse’s, which made it seem to me as though the crowd was made up of more Republicans that the other one had seemed to be, despite the larger numbers of Whitehouse supporters protesting outside the hall.
The senatorial debate also seemed more professional to me. Maybe it was just because there were fewer candidates in the mix (two compared to four) and with less controversial candidates (Joe Trillo, looking at you), but there seemed to be a lot more respect between Flanders and Whitehouse than there was between the gubernatorial candidates. They shook hands before the debate, and even the way they made their often stinging jabs at one another seemed more polite than those in the other debate.
Something important to mention about the senatorial debate is that there weren’t any protesters interrupting the candidates or holding signs in the auditorium during the debate itself. This is largely due to a few incidents during the gubernatorial debate, in which certain candidates (once again, Joe Trillo, looking at you) were interrupted with calls of “Black Lives Matter!” and “Racist” and “No More ‘N’ Word!” in response to allegations that he’s, well, a racist.
From a journalistic, freedom of speech and citizen standpoint, I thought that they were well within their rights to do that, as were the protesters holding signs inside. But the explanation given to me as to why these forms of protest weren’t allowed at the senatorial debate made sense to me, too. What’s the point of a debate if not everybody’s going to get their chance to speak? But from that other standpoint, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me a little bit that these forms of mostly peaceful and non-disruptive protest weren’t allowed. The signs, by the way, weren’t allowed because they blocked people’s vision of the stage and those standing in the aisles or off to the sides could have posed a safety hazard in the event of a fire.
In terms of the debate content itself, I will say that it definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things. I consider myself to be fairly well aware of what’s going on in both Rhode Island and national politics, but responses given by both candidates certainly made me take a second look at things that I thought I already had a set opinion on. Despite the more than occasional jabs at the other’s character, I felt from an objective standpoint that both, for the most part, presented clear and articulate arguments. From a subjective standpoint, however, it’s a bit of a different story. My own personal biases stay out of my reporting, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. There were definitely a few times during the debate where I found myself wondering exactly what someone was trying to say, or if they really just said that crazy thing that they said.
From the standpoint of a journalist, it was wonderful to speak to both candidates and ask them questions about things that specifically pertain to URI students. Also, no matter who you are or what you believe in, meeting your senator is really cool. (I think I may have stopped breathing for a second when I met Sheldon Whitehouse.) As a lifelong Rhode Island resident, this debate and the results of this election will have a far greater impact on me personally than it might on out of state students. I went into this debate already knowing who I was going to vote for and I haven’t changed my mind. It did, however, definitely make me reconsider a lot of things about my chosen candidate, both good and bad. I’m really honored to have had the opportunity to witness this first-hand, and I would say that it certainly made me a more informed voter.