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Dipping their toes into the national political scene for an evening, six representatives of Harvard groups supporting Democratic candidates for president sparred over policy ideas and platforms at a debate held in Harvard Yard Thursday evening.
Roughly 200 undergraduates packed into a Sever Hall classroom for the event, hosted by the Harvard Political Union. Despite the debate’s intent to persuade, some attendees appeared to have made up their minds before coming, donning campaign gear for the candidates represented on stage.
HPU President Matthew S. Miller ’21, Institute of Politics Director of Diversity and Outreach Jasmine N. Hyppolite ’21, and Institute of Politics Director Mark D. Gearan ’78 introduced the debaters and laid out the event’s format.
Each debater had the opportunity to give an opening and closing statement; answer an audience question; respond to common campaign criticisms; and articulate their candidates’ position on climate change, health care, foreign policy, and education. If a candidate went over the allotted time, Miller interrupted them with loud bangs of his gavel.
Groups of Harvard College Democrats favoring Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg ’04, Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and entrepreneur Andrew Yang were present at the debate. One student from each group participated in the debate as other members of each group cheered from the audience.
Each debater delivered an opening statement, giving a brief pitch for their respective candidates. M. Kate H. Travis ’22, representing Harvard for Warren, recalled hearing about Warren’s remarks in support of Planned Parenthood in 2015.
“I'm worried about one day that I or one of my friends might need a cancer screening, or an IUD, or maybe even an abortion and not be able to get it because our government decided that that was not the kind of healthcare that we wanted to provide, and who should I see on my Facebook feed but Elizabeth Warren talking about this issue,” she said.
Damian L. Richardson ’20, a member of Harvard for Kamala, focused his remarks on Harris’s record as a prosecutor.
“The criminal justice system is a more just place because Kamala entered into a system she knew was steeped in oppression and reformed it from the inside out,” Richardson said. “Let me tell you, she's ready to prosecute the case against the predator in the White House.”
During one part of the debate, the moderators asked each representative about a criticism commonly leveled at their respective candidate’s campaign. Miller asked Diego A. Garcia ’20, a member of Harvard for Biden, about Biden’s decision to support the Anti-Drug Abuse Act 0f 1986 when he was a U.S. senator representing Delaware.
“If crime were to rise under Vice President Biden's potential presidential administration, how would he craft a criminal justice policy that does not fuel racial inequality?” Miller asked.
Garcia responded, calling for the end of private prisons.
“Furthermore, we need to decriminalize marijuana,” Garcia responded. “Finally, we need to invest in preventive services — things like addiction therapy, mental health services, education.”
Midway through the event, Miller and Hyppolite ceded the floor to audience members. Faced with an audience question about Booker’s record on education while serving as mayor of Newark, N.J., Harvard Law School student and Harvard for Cory representative Andrew J. Freire defended the candidate’s decision to support charter schools in the city.
Many of the debaters used part of their closing statements to invite audience members to their groups’ regular meetings. The HPU also invited attendees to sign up for “Harvard For” email lists.
Other debaters included Piper W. Winkler ’21 from Harvard for Bernie, Michael B. Baick ’22 from Harvard for Pete, and Michael Zhu ’22 from Harvard for Yang.
Debate-watcher Lena Lofgren ’23 said she has a “strong leaning” toward voting for Warren or Sanders in the Pennsylvania primary, but that she attended the debate to hear other undergraduates’ rationales.
“In the democratic field can be hard to distinguish between different candidates, especially in such a competitive primary,” Lofgren said. “So I think it was important to me to hear the perspectives of the different candidates in this debate setting but also in particular hear why other students are attracted to them.”
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