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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Youth forum evokes best in politicians

Seen the new attack ad on Chris Marr? I won’t repeat any of it, other than to note that it formally marked the moment when the local election season went from discouraging to scumbaggy. As it always does.

This is the wearying season for people who follow politics. Things get stupider and meaner as they become more important. But on Thursday night – while Patty Murray and Dino Rossi slugged it out at KSPS – there was another event on the Spokane political calendar that offered a reminder of the other, sometimes invisible political world.

The one where people talk about their own ideas, not their opponents’ skeletons. The one where candidates don’t act like stage-managed dolls, robotically repeating slogans. The one where the discussion is a little nice, a little honest, a little boring and a lot responsible.

It was like a civics lesson or something. Good thing there were a bunch of kids there to see it.

Thursday night was the annual youth issues forum sponsored by the Chase Youth Commission. Five legislative candidates and two County Commission candidates showed up at Spokane City Hall to field questions from young people, in advance of a mock election. It wasn’t a huge turnout, but Democrats swept it. Andy Billig, Timm Ormsby and Bonnie Mager each won their races, respectively, and a version of the proposal to create a Children’s Investment Fund to pay for dropout prevention programs passed in a landslide.

More notable, though, was the positively … positive air that hung about the whole affair. Mager and her GOP opponent, Al French, chatted as they waited for their debate to begin. Ormsby nodded in agreement with his opponent, Morgan Oyler, a time or two. Oyler once said, “Mr. Ormsby actually makes an excellent point there.”

John Driscoll, the incumbent in the 6th District legislative race, probably had the clearest shot at his opponent, John Ahern – who skipped the debate to participate in a conference call with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. I don’t know if Ahern was the preacher or the choir in that particular meeting, but Driscoll took the high road.

“I happen to be the only person here tonight from the 6th District,” he said mildly.

The event was a chance for teens to practice politics in a concrete way and to meet their local leaders. MacKenzie Christensen, a 16-year-old junior at North Central High School who’s also been involved in past forums, said it’s important for young people to understand politics and government, and for candidates to hear from them.

“A lot of the questions the youth ask are more advanced than the candidates expect,” she said. “They come here thinking, ‘Oh, these are youth questions, and they’re going to be easy,’ and I think they’re actually surprised.”

Like several students at the forum, 17-year-old Mead High School senior Erin Baldini said she wanted to hear what the candidates had to say about education and the budget deficit. Sana Amin, a 17-year-old Mead senior, said that as a Muslim she’s become interested in issues about faith, culture and politics. Spencer White, a 17-year-old senior from University High School, said he wanted to hear what candidates had to say about the dropout rate.

One of the younger kids there was Chris Fortner, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Glover Middle School. Fortner asked a question about alternative transportation, which was prompted by his frustrations about the effects of traffic congestion on his bus ride.

“It takes way more time than it should,” he said after the forum.

He said he’s been tuning in to political ads on TV this year.

“I like watching all of them,” he said. “It’s funny. One says one thing. Another says another thing.”

The students asked the candidates about bullying, school funding and the fiscal crisis, and standardized testing. The candidates mostly answered in ways you might expect, though there were some unexpected moments.

Dave White, the Republican running against Billig in the 3rd District, answered a question about bullying by noting that he was a fat, red-headed kid who wore thick glasses and moved a lot.

“I know all about this problem, believe me,” he said.

Ormsby talked about the fact that he never understood the Pythagorean theorem when it was taught in a classroom – he picked it up on a construction site.

What if all our politics took place in front of a room full of kids? Debates, stump speeches, advertising? What if the lowlifes who make the TV ads – and the candidates who benefit while minimizing their responsibility for them – had to explain their strategy to Chris Fortner?

At one point during the forum, Billig said he had considered whether to tailor his message specifically to the students, but decided not to.

“There’s no kids’ table when it comes to politics,” he said.

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