A John Day high school student was in the spotlight Tuesday along with several other youths asking questions of Oregon’s three gubernatorial candidates in a televised debate.
Democrat Gov. Kate Brown, Republican Rep. Knute Buehler and Independent Patrick Starnes debated questions asked by students ages 12-19 at Roosevelt High School in Portland.
Students peppered the candidates with questions with a range of topics, including gun safety, teen suicide, the foster care system and child homelessness.
Grant Union High School senior McKeely Miller put rural Grant County’s internet access issue at center stage.
Describing how the lack of reliable, high-speed internet “sets a barrier in the classroom and the workforce,” she asked the candidates how they would approach the problem.
Buehler, who had a turn to speak first, said it’s a topic he’s heard about while traveling through Eastern Oregon and that he understands the importance of leveling the playing field and closing the opportunity and achievement gap that has developed between urban and rural Oregon. He said he will work diligently to bring Oregon together.
“I believe that I’m uniquely qualified to bridge that gap and create one Oregon, which we all desire,” he said.
Brown said she’s already been involved in helping with the solution, noting she worked with a Republican leader “to invest $1.8 million to build internet access” in Grant County through an appropriation to the city of John Day.
“It’s so key for our rural communities that our schools be connected, that our homes be connected and, of course, our businesses be connected,” she said. “It gives rural Oregon the opportunity to grow and thrive and create good-paying jobs in every single nook and cranny across the state.”
Starnes said he served on the McKenzie school board, with only 200 students in the school district.
“We struggled with that directly — having access,” he said. “I feel like the biggest important job for the governor is to connect these dots that are already existing ...”
“I thought Gov. Brown did a pretty good job responding to my question,” Miller said, adding Buehler “acknowledged that it was a problem but didn’t necessarily address the solution.”
Miller said she felt the debate was a good opportunity to highlight issues from her community. She said she liked the format and the opportunity for young people to ask questions, but she wished there had been more youths representing the eastern side of the state.
One student from Prineville and another from Pendleton were the only other students from east of the Cascades.
Miller said an exciting moment came after the debate.
“We were able to meet the only female state governors in Oregon in the whole state history, Gov. Brown and former Gov. Barbara Roberts,” she said.
Joining Miller in attending the debate and on a tour of the state Capitol were two fellow students, senior Tanner Elliott and junior Tyler Blood.
Elliott, who is Grant Union’s student body president, said attending the debate live was a different experience.
“It’s more personal,” he said.
He said it was unfair that students more often directed their questions to Brown and Buehler, excluding Starnes.
“The rest of it was good,” he said. “It was fun to see Gov. Brown and Buehler ‘exchange blows’ with one another.”
Elliott said it will be a close race.
“It’s going to be a crucial election to see if Oregonians want change or if they want to stick with the policies of the past and present,” he said.
Elliott, who wants to be involved at the state level and “hopefully the national level” of government, said he has a summer internship planned with Sen. Ron Wyden’s office.
“The youth of this country should get more involved,” he said. “We have some major problems facing our country, and we need great leaders and great people to solve these problems.”
Blood said she thought the debate went well, but she was disappointed in some of the candidates answers. She said both Buehler and Brown, at times, didn’t answer how they would solve an issue.
Blood, who is the junior class president at Grant Union, said one girl from Portland was “very tenacious” in her questioning. The girl wanted a direct answer on how to stop LGBT bullying in schools.
She agreed rural areas were underrepresented.
“I thought it was too bad that we only had a couple representatives from frontier communities” Blood said.
Students selected to ask questions at the debate had entered a video demo and were interviewed before being selected from a Children First for Oregon panel of judges, which hosted the debate along with Pamplin Media Group and KOIN News.