A day after presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s contentious presidential debate, Ohio University students and Athens residents witnessed a quieter version between candidates for the Ohio House of Representatives.
OU Student Senate hosted the event in conjunction with College Democrats and Republicans. The town hall debate forum provided one of the first public opportunities in which local residents heard directly from their candidates, Sarah Grace and Jay Edwards.
“I’m so thrilled when I see crowds of people of all ages and backgrounds wanting to be involved in the democratic process,” Grace, a Democrat, said. “It’s an exciting time and an exciting thing to be a part of.”
Grace, a local mother of four and small business owner, is squaring off against Republican candidate Edwards, a Nelsonville realtor and lifetime Athens County resident, for Ohio’s 94th District seat. The seat is currently occupied by Debbie Phillips, D-Albany.
Though supporters were divided, with some donning red “Make America Great Again” hats, and others wearing Hillary Clinton stickers, the candidates agreed on a majority of topics, both expressing their desires for bipartisanship and cooperation in Columbus.
“This area is very unique — it is and always will be home to me,” Edwards said in his opening statement. “We need to do away with the partisan bickering and make a change for one of the poorest districts in Ohio.”
The debate focused on five main issues facing both the candidates and the district as a whole: economy, healthcare, education, environment and the community.
While the candidates agreed on issues pertaining to the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, their opinions differed slightly on the topic of women’s reproductive issues. Though Edwards' website states that he is dedicated to "defending the sanctity of life," the candidate did not explicitly state a viewpoint at the forum, instead saying it’s an issue he is “very passionate about."
“I think that we have to realize that there’s arguments on both sides of the aisle,” Edwards said. “You’re representing constituents, and you have to separate yourself.”
Though Grace agreed with Edwards on the main points of the subject, she was nearly moved to tears in talking about her own experiences with women’s health.
“I did not think that this is an issue that I would have to fight for,” Grace said. “I will protect a woman's right to choose what is best for her own life and her family.”
Education, an issue that Grace has frequently touted as one of her primary reasons for running, surfaced twice in the debate. On both occasions, the candidates advocated for a heightened standard of accountability for online charter schools.
Edwards stressed that fracking would bring jobs to the region and said an overall decrease in energy consumption would help the environment, while Grace highlighted the importance of renewable energy.
“We should not be basing our economy and our jobs on something that will cause a boom and bust within our region,” Grace said. “We need to be smarter than that.”
When the moderator asked candidates to give endorsements for U.S. president, Grace firmly voiced her support for democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Edwards was reluctant to give an endorsement, saying he "hasn't been paying that much attention" to the presidential race.
OU College Democrats President Sam Miller said that though she enjoyed the debate, she would have liked to have seen the candidates discuss the issue of campus sexual assault and other topics.
“I also think that some stronger answers from Jay Edwards would have been appropriate,” Miller said. “Walking away from this debate, I don’t really know what he stands for and as a politically-educated person, I can only figure that other people are feeling the same thing.”
Though he agreed that social issues were generally left out of the debate, OU College Republicans President Dave Parkhill praised the moderators for keeping the debate centered on local, rather than campus, issues.
“They didn’t ask questions that were weighed toward one person or the other, which I thought was a nice change of pace … to just hear people stand up and say ‘here’s what I believe,’ ” Parkhill said. “I think it’s really important to remember that the 94th district is more than just OU, and that students are really only here for four years.”