By Alejandra Alarcon
Weeks before their final exams, students at Loyola Marymount University suddenly had something just as pressing on the horizon: They learned that, on Thursday, December 19, the school would step into the national spotlight as presidential candidates took the stage for the sixth Democratic primary debate. Isabelle Marin, a senior and political science major said she "knew she was going to have to get [herself] there somehow."
Marin, 21, was among the 150 students selected to watch the debate in Gersten Pavilion, on the school’s campus in Los Angeles, California. 50 additional students were selected to assist with event operations, act as stand-ins for tech rehearsals, and produce video content on behalf of PBS NewsHour. Students didn't learn whether or not they had been selected to attend until seven days before the debate. Yet on campus, the excitement didn't truly kick in until two days before.
In the same hour that students heard about tickets, they also learned that all seven candidates slated to attend threatened to pull out of the debate if the union representing the school’s food service workers, Unite Here Local 11, and the employment company Sodexo didn't reach an agreement in an ongoing labor dispute. The union was pushing for higher wages and lower healthcare costs for Sodexo workers at LMU, and the company had stalled on bargaining meetings. (A similar standoff had caused the debate to move to LMU in November after a union dispute at University of California, Los Angeles, stalled plans.)
After national outcry and some intervention by the Democratic National Committee, the two parties reached an agreement on Tuesday morning — and the show would go on.
For Veronica Backer-Peral, a sophomore and opinion editor for the Loyolan, the debate “was a chance for the entire world to appreciate LMU in the way that I do every day." The 19-year-old was one of three student reporters who spoke with candidates following the debate.
Twenty-year-old Simona Vishnevsky, a student research assistant at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, was excited for the unique opportunity that expanded the boundaries of the classroom: "You are no longer learning about the debates or watching their coverage on the news — you are there,” she told MTV News about the opportunity. “You are able to contribute questions, ideas, and thoughts to this monumental event for which you get a front-row seat."
The debate lived in the shadow of a bigger story: In a historic moment, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump on Wednesday (December 18), the night before the debate. It had been a long time coming, especially for LMU students: The campus is located in a district represented by Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who first called for the President’s impeachment shortly after he took office.
Marin was proud of the House for impeaching the president on the grounds of his phone call with the President of Ukraine. "It was necessary to show him that what he has done is an offense that doesn't get a pass in our country," she told MTV News.
But some students expressed mixed feelings about impeachment, adding that they were unsure about what would happen in the Senate — or what message an acquittal would send politicians of all parties. "Regardless of whether or not Trump is removed from office, this will forever mark his presidential legacy," said junior Luvia Lopez, 20, who is majoring in Chicana/o and Latina/o studies.
Though the cameras didn’t begin broadcasting until Thursday night, many students on LMU’s campus kept busy preparing for the big night. Katie Linh Pham, 23, stood in for moderator and PBS NewsHour senior national correspondent Amna Nawaz through the two days of technical rehearsals leading up to the debate. Being involved with the tech rehearsal meant she interfaced with several of the candidates directly, as many of them dropped by Gersten Pavilion to talk with the students in the days leading up to the event.
A proponent for mental health advocacy, the graduate student asked Senator Warren what she does to practice self-care while on the campaign trail; Senator Elizabeth Warren famously stays active on walks, averaging six miles a day. Her advice? "You’ve got to keep moving!"
Only seven candidates met the DNC’s qualification requirements for the debate, making this the smallest stage so far. Backer-Peral saw a benefit to the tighter pool: "Some of the less prominent candidates really shined tonight and provided new and refreshing perspectives on issues that have been discussed time and time again, such as healthcare,” she said. Even so, she felt as if some responses were lacking. “It was disappointing to see some candidates repeat overused, memorized responses for real, pressing questions," she added.
20-year-old junior Havana Campo was most interested in hearing candidates’ thoughts on the climate crisis. "I work in an environmental science research lab and see first-hand the negative effects that humans are causing to the earth. This is a state of emergency and should be treated as such,” she said.
She also kept an ear out to hear candidates’ thoughts about healthcare. "My mom has a chronic illness, and it's so hard to see the financial strain it puts on my family. I have seen my mom not fill a prescription she needs because we are tight on money," Campo explained. So when Warren shared a story of a man in Nevada whose financial situation forces him to make one insulin prescription work for three people at the end of the night, the biochemistry major was listening. The story resonated with Campo, who told MTV News, "I will continue to support 'the youngest woman ever inaugurated.'"
Students were also interested in hearing from candidates on student debt, immigration, gun control, and homelessness; Lopez said the student debt crisis is the number one issue she thinks about. The yearly cost of tuition at LMU is currently $50,252.
Also sitting in the debate hall on Thursday Night was Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo, who authored the California DREAM Act in 2011, a set of laws that allow eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at any public college in California and receive financial aid granted by the state. Nawaz nodded to that bill when she asked businessman Andrew Yang a question about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, whose future is currently being deliberated in the Supreme Court.
"There are nearly 200,000 DACA recipients, so-called DREAMers, in the state of California more than any other state, including several students right here at LMU," Nawaz said. “If you win and you reinstate DACA through executive action, another president could just overturn it again. So, will you move on a permanent legislative fix for DREAMers in your first 100 days if elected?” Yang said that "of course" he would, before making a hard pivot to the importance of female leaders, as well as his universal basic income platform; Nawaz had to remind him about the question at hand.
Every year, LMU awards full-ride scholarships to DREAMers and offers a support network of faculty, staff, and other student allies, who are known as social justice scholars. Dr. Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu, an advisor and professor of theological studies, was asked if she submitted the question. She thinks it actually came from one of the scholars.
Junior communication studies major Rafael Paniagua was glad to hear DACA discussed. "Being a first-generation Mexican-American, the topic of immigration really hits home as it is something that affects a lot of my family, friends, and the Latin[x] community in Los Angeles overall," he told MTV News.
Saul Rascon Salazar, a freshman international relations major, was disappointed that the issue was only briefly mentioned. “That was very surprising to me considering the debate was held at a university,” he said. According to the Washington Post’s transcript of the night, the word “gun” was only uttered once, by Warren, who used it as a larger point in the fight against lobbyists and corruption.
Pham agreed. "Some people think that gun control isn’t a gun problem, but rather a mental health problem,” she pointed out. “As a mental health advocate, it is critical that I help end the stigma that perpetuates the idea that those battling mental health issues are violent enough to do such treacherous acts." Per the National Alliance on Mental Illness, people with mental health needs are more likely to be victims of gun violence, not the perpetrators.
Many students were also surprised that none of the moderators asked a question about unions, especially given that labor disputes caused a change in venue and threatened the debate altogether. "If the candidates were willing to risk the debate for one group, they should justify how they are going to solve the nationwide issues that thousands of workers are facing — not just Sodexo workers at LMU," Backer-Peral noted.
The issue wasn’t altogether ignored, it was just the elephant in the room. And as attendees made their way out of Gersten Pavilion at night's end, LMU President Timothy Law Snyder stayed to chat with Angela Fisher, a Sodexo worker and member of Unite Here Local 11. Fisher and several other union members had been invited by the DNC to attend the debate.
According to a Los Angeles Times article published earlier this week, Fisher makes $14.40 an hour, only 25 cents more than the local minimum wage. She sleeps in her car and wakes up around 2 a.m. to shower at a gym and get ready for work. "When you are living in this society, in a state that can do better by its workers, and you see that someone chose to step up and go above and beyond, it gives a sigh of release," she told MTV News.
Many students have supported the workers from the beginning of their dispute with Sodexo, a global food service contracting powerhouse. "The terms of the agreement were long overdue and I'm glad they found a solution,” Marin said. “I'm disheartened that it only came after nationwide media attention on the threat to the debate.”
Students also hoped the candidates would discuss homelessness, a key social issue facing Angelenos and Californians at large. The moderators didn't ask a question, but Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Amy Kobuchar, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg brought up the issue in their answers, which stemmed from a range of prompts.
“Whether it’s infrastructure, childcare, housing, health — on issue after issue, we’ve got to break out of the Washington mindset that measures the bigness of an idea by how many trillions of dollars it adds to the budget or the boldness of an idea by how many fellow Americans it can antagonize,” said Buttigieg, whose economic plan released in November included the lowering of housing costs.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was glad to hear some of the candidates proactively discuss it. "[Homelessness] should not be weaponized, this should not be partisan, and it is a huge issue in the shadow of the White House where more people per capita are homeless in Washington, D.C., than even here," he told Spectrum News 1 following the debate. Approximately 60,000 people in Los Angeles County are homeless on any given night, an increase of 12 percent from the last year. And while California’s budget is expected to reach a surplus of $7 billion by year’s end, the number of people statewide who are homeless is increasing, and the rise in housing costs across the state is only making things worse.
"There are many hurting people including myself who can't survive this economy on the wages that we work for. Homelessness for a person who works 40 hours a week is ridiculous,” Fisher added. “Some can't meet mortgage payments because hours have been cut but you've been on your job 11-21 years. You can't get healthcare because you won't be able to afford to feed your family. Unacceptable."
So, what's next for LMU students? "What's next is to keep going,” Backer-Peral said. “This opportunity has made me even more excited to continue to become politically involved. The more political events I attend, the more excited I am to keep learning and working hard so that eventually I can be the one that is making a difference.”
Paniagua thinks the debate really set the tone for what's to come in 2020. "I think it's going to be an intense yet exciting year for American politics,” he noted, adding that his course load next semester includes a political science course focused on the primary election cycle. “There is a lot at stake and I feel the pressure is on to just get out and vote."
Campo, who is registered to vote in her home state of Texas, agreed. "I just applied for my absentee ballot and will continue to encourage everyone, regardless of opinion, to vote in every single election," she said.
As for Salazar, he’s still energized by the fact that the debates came to town at all. "Historic events like these should be encouraged to take place in universities where the youth and future of our country currently reside," he said. This debate, he believes, “united a campus community like never before and directly engaged students into politics. It's a great way to generate student interest — everyone is going to care about their school and think about the significance of a debate."