Fifth District Congressional Debate
Following the conduct of a pre-primary forum for gubernatorial candidates which was held at CCSU on April 23, 2018, a staff discussion revolving around other political debate-style programs ensued. Among the ideas considered in the summer of 2018 was a formal, pre-election Congressional debate for Connecticut’s lone open House seat in the Fifth Congressional District, which geographically includes New Britain, much of central Connecticut, and CCSU.
CPPSR and the Governor William A. O’Neill Endowed Chair sponsored the debate in collaboration with the Student Government Association (SGA), same as the April event. Initial planning efforts began in July of 2018. The 5th District candidates could not be determined until after the Democratic and Republican primary elections on August 14, 2018.
The Planning Committee established a time frame for contacting primary winners, and students worked to resolve logistical matters for the debate, including adherence to established CCSU Guidelines of Political Activity, public relations strategy (which encompassed the drafting of press statements, the design of posters and brochures, and social media strategies), inter-departmental coordination and the development of effective partnerships. Within days of being contacted, both candidates agreed to debate on the selected date and in accordance with the proposed debate format.
Student Focused and Student Activated Programs
Underlying the purpose of such an event is the development of student-focused and student activated programs. Consistent with this approach, SGA representatives were given a substantial role in providing input to debate planning from which students can draw multi-disciplinary professional skills development.
The debate between former Meriden Mayor Republican Manny Santos and Democrat Jahana Hayes required students to be involved in the following activities:
- Researching critical public policy issues facing the 5th Congressional district, our state, and nation;
- Working with Dr. Robbin Smith, Chair of the Political Science Department, and CPPSR staff to draft non-partisan questions for the candidates;
- preparation of debate invitations;
- selection of the debate moderators and student-debate panel of questioners;
- development of debate format and program logistics;
- public relations;
- design and preparation of debate programs and related materials;
- planning of the post-debate reception where students could interact informally with the candidates.
In consideration of the importance of the debate and the interest being generated, the Planning Committee was expanded to include faculty chairs and students from the Political Science and Journalism Departments.
The expanded Planning Committee solicited Stan Simpson, holder of the Robert Vance Chair in Journalism and Mass Communication at CCSU and an experienced on-air Fox 61 News broadcaster, to moderate the debate. He agreed to do so and together with Janice Palmer, CCSU’s Director of Public Relations, helped to arrange media sponsorship of the debate by Fox 61 News. Jenn Bernstein, chief political correspondent at Fox 61 News, also joined the debate as a co-moderator.
The draft debate format was finalized by the Planning Committee to include Fox 61 News as the media partner, with Stan Simpson and Jenn Bernstein serving as moderators of the debate. Subsequently, the format was shared with and agreed to by the Hayes and Santos campaigns. In the two weeks leading up to the debate on October 17, Fox 61 News widely publicized the event.
Moderators Stan Simpson and Jenn Bernstein, together with Political Science Professor Robbin Smith, Don DeFronzo and Steve Kliger, worked with students to develop appropriate questions for the candidates. The three-member panel questioning the candidates was comprised of CCSU students Kristina Vakhman from The Recorder and Christian Reyes (Political Science major), as well as CCSU Political Science Department Professor and Chair, Dr. Robbin Smith.
Kristina DeVivo, CPPSR Chief Student Research Assistant and Treasurer of the Student Government Association, worked with the SGA and the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) to recruit approximately thirty students to assist on the day of the debate. These students directed guests to the debate hall, greeted attendees, ushered guests to their seats, collected and screened proposed questions, welcomed the candidates, and assisted with the post-debate reception.
Accommodations were also made for other medias (Channel 3, Channel 30, CT-N and print media) to cover the debate. A pre-debate interview by Channel 3 News was targeted to CCSU students, and SGA President Kassandra Fruin and SGA Treasurer Kristina DeVivo were interviewed by Channel 3 News Chief Capitol Reporter Susan Raff.
On October 17, the debate itself was conducted flawlessly, with no technical or performance errors. Student panelists exhibited maturity and professionalism in their approach, and reviews of the debate were uniformly positive. It is estimated that over 400 individuals attended the debate, making it one of the largest events ever sponsored by CPPSR and the O’Neill Chair in coordination with other CCSU departments.
Thirty-two bright, enthusiastic and highly motivated CCSU students were working on the debate floor in various capacities including serving on the panel of questioning the candidates, screening questions from the audience, serving as timers and ushers, and staffing the post-debate reception. Working in collaboration with and being mentored by the award-winning journalists and technicians at Fox 61 News, CCSU students had the unique opportunity to experience the programmatic and technical planning, stagecraft and behind-the-scenes preparations for the debate. This student-centric model utilizing students in every aspect of the research, planning and implementation process for a high-profile, public policy event will be replicated in future CPPSR programming.