Debate allows students to make their voices heard

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By Kimberly Wethal, Andrew Eppen and Emily Lepkowski

Feb. 17, 2016

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) were the only two candidates on stage at the Democratic primary debate on Feb. 11, but that didn’t stop past and present UW students from fighting to have their voices heard.

Students Allied for a Greener Earth (SAGE), was present on campus the night of the debate. SAGE activists have been pushing for the Democratic candidates to address climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline.

“The voices of students and united movements coming together always makes a huge ripple,” said UW-W alumna and SAGE representative Cassie Steiner. “We get to vote and elect our next candidates and so we have a lot of choices that we can make.”

The Democratic primary debate, hosted by PBS NewsHour and held at UW-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader Concert Hall, left a few UW-M students feeling burned by the campus’ actions.

Those students showed their discontent with the way the university distributed tickets to the debate, the lack of a union for student workers on campus and resentment towards campus security.

“[The way conservative students are treated] pisses me off,” Devin Gatton, vice chair of the UW-M College Republicans said. “[Campus officials are] constantly allowing liberal groups, progressive groups, to do what they want everywhere on this campus, whenever they want to do it … this is not the first time we’ve had to deal with this.”

Read the debate coverage story here.

Ticket raffle ‘a slap in the face’

UW-M senior and veteran Oliver Edward stood outside the press filing room, holding a protest sign. To his beliefs, UW-M students deserved better than a raffle of 25 tickets to the debate.

The lack of accessibility to the debate contradicts the candidates’ drive to pull in millennial voters, he said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Edward said. “[The Democratic National Committee is] all about connecting to youth voters, they want the youth voters; but then they won’t give us the chance to actually go and experience something that’s a pretty big deal. So yeah, I’m a little upset.”

UW-M’s campus is fairly active in politics and shifted heavily towards the left, he said. When Clinton had held a rally on campus months back, the response had been huge.

Edward’s frustration came from multiple avenues: the “microscopic” number of tickets considering the campus’ population of 28,000, the secrecy behind it all and the inconveniences made to students who were denied access.

Three streets surrounding the concert hall and the Student Union were shut down by late morning, and throughout the area men with assault rifles walked freely, Edward said. Faculty parking had been reserved for those attending the debate, leading to the cancellation of many classes for the day.

UW-M students were notified of the raffle application three times, twice through email and once through a Facebook post.

Raffle applicants were vetted by the Dean of Students office and UW-M police, for criteria such as good academic standing.

From this large group, UW-M staff selected 25 students at random, said Student Association President Michael Sportiello.

Gatton saw the move as restricting to students.

“The school was very stingy with who got to get in,” Gatton said. “They did a police check, an academic check … and a non-academic check.”

Gatton said the school completed a full investigation into the prospective ticket recipient’s social media. A student qualified by having a heavily democratic presence on social media.

UW-M Media Relations said it was the Student Association, not the university, who raffled off the tickets to the debate.

Sportiello said as long as a student completely filled out the form for the raffle, they had the same chance as anyone else to get in, regardless of their political affiliation.

“Let me first say that the vice chair of the UW-M College Republicans was absolutely incorrect in his description of how those tickets were given out,” Sportiello said in an email to the Royal Purple. “We were very transparent throughout the entire process of exactly how the tickets were distributed. In no way did anyone have to have any ‘democratic’ presence on social media. That is wholly false and unfounded.”

Fight for $15

Some student workers at UW-M aren’t happy with their current working conditions on campus – and they made sure their position was heard.

With signs, megaphones, drums and 6-foot tall cardboard numbers spelling out “15,” the activist group, comprised of mostly Hispanic and black students, brought their grievances inside the Student Union to storm the hallway outside the press filing room’s glass doors.

Chanting “We believe that we will win” and “We are the workers, the mighty, mighty workers,” they made their demands known: a union for student workers, and minimum wage of $15.

“We can’t live off of $9 an hour!” shouted one student into her megaphone.

Despite their loud protests, they were nonconfrontational, but police security still barricaded the doors to the press filing room. Photographers and videographers inside swarmed to the doors, capturing images and video of the crowd from behind the glass.

Journalists who had been stuck on the outside of the doors at the time by pure chance had to be led through a set of back hallways by security to obtain access back to the room.

The activists then moved to the open area of the Student Union one floor down, holding up 10-foot long banners and using the wooden desk portions of lounge chairs as their personal snare drums before moving on to their next location.

Students eating their dinner seconds prior in the cafeteria rushed to the staircase overlooking the protesters, and watched as the “Fight for 15” activists completely engulfed the first floor of the Student Union.

“You want our vote? Come get our vote,” they chanted into megaphones as they walked out a row of doors.

GOP students feel backlash

The UW-M College Republicans were forced by campus police personnel to repeatedly move their Republican advocacy booth away from the press filing room.

Gatton grew irritated in his response as he watched his fellow College Republicans transfer their table and their belongings 30 feet to a new location, close enough to rub shoulders with the barricade, but far enough to seal them out.

The College Republicans set up their table of Republican National Committee information and pro-conservative and anti-liberal postcards at multiple events, including Clinton’s rally on campus last fall.

“This happens every single time that we come here,” Gatton said. “The second a College Republican stands up and wants to do something as well, [campus officials] cause issues.”

While College Republicans may be represented in fewer numbers on campus than College Democrats, the support system is equally as strong, Gatton said.

Gatton compared the situation to the coming out of an LGBT individual, a movement he supports.

“[College Republicans] feel as if there are so many other people that disagree with them that they have to hide, Gatton said. “We are here to show them that they don’t have to hide, that we are here to help them.”

‘Our future on the line’

UW-Whitewater students reacted to Clinton and Sanders’ statements following the debate.

UW-W College Dems Communication Director senior Matt Heitmann says he was happy with the messages he heard from both candidates at the debate, but didn’t hear anything new.

“I was very pleased with how the whole debate went,” Heitmann said. “Unlike the Republican counterpart debates, where they don’t really talk about issues that pertain to middle-class, or actual problems in America. These debates with Democrats, and especially Bernie and Hillary, they talk about more issues that hit home.”

It’s beneficial for students to pay attention to the election, because those in college will soon enter the working world and need to pay off any debt they may have acquired, Heitmann said.

“The next election coming up, depending on who gets in the White House, is definitely going to shape our current path,” Heitmann said. “We’re just coming out of a recession, and jobs are very far and few between. When it comes to students like us, it’s very beneficial to us to pay attention to that kind of stuff, especially when it’s our future on the line.”

UW-W College Republicans member Lauren Foegen said the conservative movement in Wisconsin has been beneficial for students, citing Gov. Scott Walker’s six-year tuition freeze.

“Despite what many Progressives would like others to believe, the Republican Party is home to candidates that care deeply about students … all over the United States,” Foegen said.

Foegen has noticed an attitude towards students who affiliate with the GOP in ways similar to those Gatton experiences on UW-M’s campus.

“There is no doubt that being a Conservative student on what many believe as being a liberal campus can be difficult at times, but in the end, it has made my views much stronger,” Foegen said. “The elephant on campus is certainly any student who identifies as a Conservative, however there is no need for it to be. The GOP is no longer a party filled with much older men who are out of touch with what our generation needs.”

Social media reacts

The PBS NewsHour Primary Debate reached a combined television audience of over 8 million people.

As far as a clear-cut winner was concerned, Clinton and Sanders were even. They had their fair share of challenges against each other, but there was no major bickering. 

Fox News’ Kurt “The CyberGuy” Knutsson tracked the debate’s social media responses. Sanders’ statement, “This campaign is not just about electing a president. What this campaign is about is creating a process for a political revolution” received the most attention on Twitter.

Hillary gained the most reaction to her claim that “America can’t live up to its full potential until we give men and women the opportunity to live up to theirs.”

On Twitter, Clinton and Sanders were split down the middle, Knutsson said. 

However, Sanders was the most talked-about candidate on Facebook by a 3-to-1 margin.

With just over a half a million people reacting on social media post-debate, it was the least talked-about debate of the 2016 election. 

The public may have silenced their opinion of issues discussed in the debate, but the hashtags #Cough and #Fingerwag surfaced on Twitter, poking fun at Sanders’ debate mannerisms.