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Robin Jones Kerr: Finding value in the SA debate

Media Credit: Sam Hardgrove | Hatchet Staff Photographer

At first, I thought I was going to hate the Chipotle question.

When Residence Hall Association President Ari Massefski came to the microphone in the latter part of the Student Association presidential debate Tuesday night with a plan to ask a “lighter question,” I tensed up. I expected an awkward question and even more awkward answers.

But the moment was an opportunity for us to get a real look at each of these candidates. Andie Dowd joked about being a person who “makes the most of their resources,” and admitted she orders a tortilla on the side to be economical. Laughing, she loosened up, leaned back in her chair and we saw who she is under the candidate.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Robin Jones Kerr

Her opponents, Ben Pryde and Alex Cho, didn’t take the moment as a chance to cut loose all that much, with Pryde looking pained by the question and, sounding weary, giving a brief, basic answer that could have come out of the mouth of a cautious candidate for federal office.

If they were annoyed the question was distracting them from the issues at hand, they needn’t be – there was little real discussion about how the candidates would implement their platforms during either the presidential or executive vice presidential debates. Both – particularly the discussion among the EVP candidates – devolved into an (albeit expected) deluge of buzzwords, filler phrases and earnest but eye-roll-inducing pledges to “improve communication.”

In an ideal world, average students would attend the debate in droves, jockeying for the chance to hear from the candidates for the highest student positions at GW. Although many students get an opportunity to sit down with the candidates during their campaigns, either informally or in student organization endorsement hearings, most don’t.

A two-hour debate could, in theory, give an average student a pretty good idea idea of who to vote for – even if much of the discussion is filled with meaningless platitudes. The Chipotle question alone could give reasonable students a pretty good idea of who they might want representing them next year.

But by the very nature of this event, the students who attended were, in large part, ones already informed about the issues at hand – past and current student leaders, members of the media who have combed through candidates’ platforms, and each campaign’s own supporters.

That’s what makes the lack of issue discussion particularly frustrating. For me, it felt – as I’m sure it did for others who have taken the time to educate themselves on the issues – hugely frustrating to hear candidates speak in vague terms about their goals with little attention to how they’ll implement them.

Dowd’s platform platform contains the most tangible items, such as placing information about sexual assault resources on the backs of GWorld cards. But even she continuously reached for the vague term “student support” as a catch-all for her goals.

The debate for EVP candidates had many of the same problems – a lack of specifics discussed and, what’s worse, vague platitudes about communicating. Yes, a central role of the EVP is to support the president and communicate with senators, but that’s not a difficult pledge to make.

On the surface, EVP candidate Casey Syron came out impressively strong – kicking off the debate berating a WRGW reporter for supposedly attacking current EVP Avra Bossov in a question. He’s personable, with a down-home Midwestern attitude, and if charm was all that the role of EVP required, he’d be a shoo-in.

But Syron was unable to tell us in our endorsement hearing how he’d implement his trendy initiatives, and that hadn’t changed by the time of the debate.

Even if the questions asked are vague, the best way for candidates to set themselves apart from their opponents is to take every opportunity to speak clearly and concisely about what steps they will take toward completing their goals, including which proposals they’ll bring to which administrators.

Instead, there was a lot of talk from multiple candidates about political theater – that we should work to remove it from the senate, that it hinders the SA’s ability to get things done, that this event in and of itself was just another example of that very phenomenon. If we remove it, they argued, we’ll be able to solve nearly every problem plaguing GW.

The SA always has been and always will be a political theater because that’s the nature of student government. Weak candidates – both presidential and EVP – focus on fixing it, a problem that will always be a problem. Strong ones turn their attention inward, interrogating the feasibility of their proposals and laying out tangible plans.

Students – particularly the audience at Tuesday’s debate – deserved better than what the candidates offered. That’s why the Chipotle question was so valuable: In a night of vagueness, it gave us a concrete idea of what each candidate is like as a person. It might have even been the only valuable moment of the whole affair.

Robin Jones Kerr, a senior majoring in journalism, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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