HARWICH – Anyone who thinks today’s high school students aren’t interested in the issues that affect their communities would have seen something different at Monomoy Regional High School last Tuesday night.
Nearly 150 people showed up to hear a debate between the five candidates vying to replace retiring three-term Senator Dan Wolf, who represents the Cape and Islands district in the Massachussetts Senate. The debate, run by the students in John Dickson’s advanced placement U.S. government class, touched on key national as well as state and local issues and showcased candidate’s positions in each area.
From serving as moderator to developing the questions, from handling lighting to photography, students managed all aspects of the debate. Their questions covered more than a dozen topics, including funding for higher education, combating the opioid epidemic, protecting the fishing industry, promoting alternate energy sources, immigration and transgender access issues.
The five candidates included two Republicans, Barnstable Town Councilor Jim Crocker and retired brigadier general and former Ashland town manager Tony Schiavi; Democrats included State Representative Brian Mannal, Barnstable County Commissioner Sheila Lyons, and Julian Cyr, formerly with the state department of public health.
On the subject of reining in higher education costs, Mannal favored “moving to online learning and limiting salaries in public universities, especially for football coaches and presidents.”
Sciavi noted the need to “fully fund special education and transportation needs,” especially to support the regionalized schools.
Turning to what more should be done to address opioid addiction, Mannal called the war on drugs “a failure,” adding that “we call addiction a disease but we don’t provide any of the treatment, education or prevention” provided for other diseases.
Crocker stressed that all stakeholders need to “come to the table, we need to study all the issues.” He added that this approach should not crowd out attention to suicide and alcohol addiction.
The question of what more could be done to protect fishing stocks and the fishing industry came close to home. Crocker stressed the importance of the “coastal economy,” while Cyr called for working to develop a market for unpopular species of fish. He cited the growth of aquaculture as a real advantage, adding there are “lots of opportunities and many challenges.”
In response to a question about the support given to solar and wind energy technologies, Sciavi pointed out that he had built turbines on Joint Base Cape Cod. “I’m a proponent of renewable energy,” he said. “We have to think outside the box.”
The subject of immigration sparked a clash among candidates. While noting that this was primarily a federal issue, Mannal asserted “I’m not about building walls – I want to tear them down. Unless you are a native American, we all came here from someplace else.”
Crocker demurred. “If it’s not in the budget, we can’t do it,” he said. Lyons called the issue a “moral obligation,” adding, “I am the child of immigrants.” Sciavi cited his Italian immigrant family but noted “we need to follow the rules and the laws.”
Lyons added a climate change related warning to the group. “We may someday be climate refugees…we may have to move from the coast. Prepare now!”
On the recent executive order regarding transgender students’ access to bathroom facilities, the group split on party lines. Sciavi and Crocker expressed concerns about privacy issues and implementation while Mannal, Cyr and Lyons called it the civil rights issue of our day.
Preparation for the debate began in early May, according to Samantha Morand, a senior at Monomoy and one of four student questioners at the debate. “We went on a trip in February to see the Iowa caucuses,” she said. “We really dug into politics this year.” The students were well aware of the different issues affecting local and state politics and national politics. “We picked our questions tonight based on the issues facing this area, on what’s important here,” stressed senior Margaret O’Donnell.
Time limits on responses, follow-up comments and opening and closing statements were meticulously observed. Timekeeper Sara Osborne used the timer on her smartphone to track the seconds and minutes. Getting down to the 15 second mark meant senior Sarah Simpson would raise one hand; going over the limit was signaled with both hands in the air.
Moderator Charlie Kiernan varied the order of responses and gently but firmly kept the proceedings on track.
The debate at Monomoy continued a tradition of hosting political debates begun at Harwich High School in 2006. Dickson was delighted with the result.
“It was an exceptional debate on the issues and very civil,” he said. “The students and the candidates were wonderful. Coming into the auditorium tonight, a lot of people were calling this the ‘unknown race’,” he added. “They didn’t know anything about the candidates – but now they know a lot!”