Republican Peggy Wilson, Democrat Matt Olson and Independent Kyle Johansen found themselves on Ketchikan High School’s auditorium stage for a forum Wednesday night. It wasn’t local media or city organizations moderating the question-and-answer session, but rather, Kayhi student body leaders.
Government teachers Greg Middag and Susan Stone organized the forum to get the students involved in and empowered by the upcoming election. Each student was assigned to create two questions on any topic they felt relevant to the election. The questions then were refined, and the forum organized to allow each candidate to respond in just 60 seconds.
Candidate Johansen said that while he hasn’t participated in this sort of formal forum with high school students, he’s visited the schools during campaigns and fielded questions from students. But even so, he said the students still keep him on his toes.
“The best thing about these is you never know what’s going to come out of the high school,” said Johansen. “They can come out of left field, so you can’t prepare.”
But they’re not uninformed. The range of topics from Wednesday night’s session included everything from continued development of Kotzebue’s Red Dog mine to addressing high rates of domestic violence and abuse in the state.
And the candidates’ answers often are met with a critical eye.
“The kids have a real understanding if you’re trying to evade the question or not,” said Johansen. “They don’t let you get away with it. You can just tell when you look out into the audience that they’re not buying it.”
Olsen and Wilson also were both excited to speak to, and impressed by, the students.
“Thank you for the opportunity to visit with you guys tonight,” said Olsen. “This is bringing back memories of being up stage for plays, or band. It’s always fun to be back in high school. Like Kyle, I grew up here, and it’s changed drastically, and it’s always a pleasure to come back and see the old areas and try to recognize which was my old locker.”
“I’m very impressed that you students are interested in hearing more about politics and being informed before you vote and this will make you better citizens for tomorrow,” said Wilson.
After the forum, I caught up with the moderators, Senior Officer Sarah Gomez and Student Body President Jackson Landis.
“ It was enjoyable,” said Landis. “I think they gave really deep, personal answers within the scope of one minute.”
“I think it went great, I think there really was a connection between the students,” Gomez added.
What were they surprised by?
“Honestly, it actually surprised me how many issues they agreed on,” said Landis. “There were only a few that had some really deep differences. It was lively, I enjoyed hearing them.”
The forum garnered a fairly large audience Wednesday, filled mostly with Kayhi students. While some of those students were required to be there, and others showed up voluntarily, Stone was pleased by those who attended – and their behavior.
“I was impressed with the audience,” said Stone. “I thought they were very in tune. I was watching their faces and they were really engaged and listening.”
“And civil!” added Landis.
“They were so excited they wanted more questions,” said Gomez.