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Political candidates answer to students in youth-led forum

September 21, 2022
Local candidates for state office (L-R) Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township), Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), Jeremy Whittum, Emily Dievendorf and John Magoola listen as a participant asks them a question at Lansing Community College on Sept. 19, 2022.
Local candidates for state office (L-R) Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township), Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), Jeremy Whittum, Emily Dievendorf and John Magoola listen as a participant asks them a question at Lansing Community College on Sept. 19, 2022. —
Photo by Sheldon Krause | The State News

Six state-level candidates faced what Rep. Sarah Anthony called “the toughest round of questioning a candidate can get” on Sept. 19 in a Lansing Community College auditorium.

Advocacy group Michigan’s Children hosted its fourth Youth Candidate Forum at LCC’s west campus Monday; bringing in candidates for state representative and state senate from the Ingham and Eaton county area. Congressional candidates Elissa Slotkin and Tom Barrett were invited, but did not attend.

Tim Monroe, Vice President of Highfields, Inc., one of the event’s sponsors, said that the forum was an important opportunity for the candidates to directly connect with an underserved portion of their potential constituencies. 

“These students represent not only their own voices, but also the voices of the future,” Monroe said.

The candidates present were current Democratic State Representatives Sarah Anthony and Angela Witwer, Republican Eaton County Commissioner Jeremy Whittum, Republican Michigan House candidate John Magoola and Democratic Michigan House candidate Emily Dievendorf.

Witwer and Whittum are competing for the 76th District’s state representative seat and Dievendorf and Magoola are seeking the newly-redrawn 77th District seat. Anthony is pursuing a seat in the 21st State Senate District. Her opponent, Nkenge Robertson, was not present at the forum.

A group of students from Ingham Academy, a local alternative high school, came armed with questions for the candidates with topics ranging from student loan debt to abandoned houses in their neighborhoods. Each student shared a personal anecdote with the candidates before asking their question and then each candidate was given a minute to respond. 

Anthony said that the first time she attended the forum, she received a tough question from one of the students about the Flint water crisis and that her lack of a good answer became a motivating factor when she took office. 

“Her voice has stuck with me literally every day,” Anthony said. “It held me accountable so that when I was speaking to another group of people, or even if she was to come back to my office, I want to have the answer for her.”

The students’ questions, which they’d spent time in class preparing, covered some of the most hot-button issues of the midterm cycle. Sierra, a 17-year-old student from Lansing and a survivor of sexual abuse, asked the candidates what they would do to protect abortion rights. 

“In my experience, the trauma I endured caused severe mental mental health issues including PTSD, depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts,” Sierra said. “Thinking about not having the option to terminate a pregnancy following an event like this is terrifying.”

The candidates’ answers invoked their experience in public service as well as in their own lives. Rep. Witwer responded to Sierra’s question by admitting that she too was a survivor of sexual assault and then voiced her commitment to protecting abortion access in Michigan.

Bringing in personal details to their responses was a common thread between the candidates, something that impressed Akeelah, a 14 year-old student from Lansing. 

“They kind of related to almost everybody's story,” she said. “They all had their own thing in their lives that happened each subject. So I liked that.”

Over the course of the event, the candidates discussed foster care issues, pollution and recycling, underfunding of urban schools, addiction and incarceration. A frequent goal expressed by the candidates was to reshape government funding around many of the issues the students posed. 

Whittum said in his answer to a question about the pitfalls of the foster care system that many of the problems involved could be addressed with better funding for staff and resources. 

“We seem to have money for a lot of things,” Whittum said. “But fixing this problem has been an epidemic. We kind of turn away from it and hope it gets better. Hope isn't a method.”

The candidates also spent time emphasizing to the students the importance of youth involvement in local and state politics and encouraging those who were old enough to vote in November. Anthony said that she keeps a Youth Advisory Council for her office and suggested that the students shouldn’t be afraid to pester their representatives for answers. 

“Have you ever been asked by an elected official what you wanted to see in your neighborhood? That's the big part of this problem is that, young people, they make decisions about you without you," Anthony said.

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