By Charlotte Schwebel
Another youth-led U.S. Senate Debate, another set of empty chairs. Yet again, Democratic frontrunner John Hickenlooper and Republican incumbent Cory Gardner were not present.
The candidates who did make it to the stage have a tough climb to the top. Of the six candidates onstage, five are running to be the Democratic nominee. The avoidance of their events has been interpreted as a way to keep them out of the spotlight, as Hickenlooper has a hefty gaffe problem. Just a few months ago, during his run for president, Politico ran an article about Hickenlooper titled “Running for President as Himself. Uh-oh.”
Hickenlooper is also running from his record on the environment. As governor of Colorado, he is often blamed for expanding fracking in the state, earning him the nickname “Frackenlooper.” His competitors appear to be well aware of this, as some are running on environmental issues.
Trish Zornio, a neuroscientist whose work branches into the environmental science space, is running to be “the first scientist on the U.S. Science Committee.” Diana Bray, a climate activist, fought for a ban on fracking in backyards and near schools in an amendment that failed for a second time last year. Her website includes the environment in every listed policy issue.
Climate wasn’t the central focus at this debate, however. The questions were geared towards youth voters and in addition to climate change covered gay rights, school shootings, Israel/Palestine and China/Taiwan foreign policy, police demilitarization, higher education, healthcare, sexual assault, and immigration. Three candidates were able to respond to each question.
Most difference in opinion on the issues came from the Unity party candidate, Joshua Rodriguez. While Lorena Garcia and Bray enthusiastically supported police demilitarization, Rodriguez advocated for an expansion of police technology. When discussing transit solutions, Rodriguez focused on future technology and bridge fuels while his opponents focused their answers on the need for a Green New Deal.
In a question about reducing push factors in Latin America, there was a heated moment between García and Rodriguez. When Rodriguez advocated for agriculture training videos, García responded: “We need to be learning from them how to farm sustainably. What we need to do on our end is protect workers when we make trade agreements.”
Rodriguez was also clear in his opposition of any form of universal healthcare, saying “the federal government isn’t a bank, we aren’t going to give everyone health insurance” in response to a question about expanding healthcare initiatives to Indigenous peoples.
The most powerful moment of the debate came at the end. The candidates were asked who they would support if they stepped out of the race. Andrew Romanoff and Zornio quickly attacked the question for “sowing division,” but in an incredible show of solidarity Stephany Rose Spaulding, Bray, and García each endorsed the other two. Three progressive women, two of them women of color, stood together and put the movement before themselves.
A post-debate poll was a testament to the statement of unity. García, a millennial lesbian Latina with a background in nonprofit and community organizing, pulled in the most votes. Her responses were consistent, informed, and sharp. Spaulding, an African American preacher and professor of Women’s and Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, came second, just two votes behind. Her powerful speaking skills and intersectional approach seemed to speak to the crowd. Both women were far ahead of the next candidate, Romanoff, who only pulled in 13 votes.