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Congressional Debates Offer a Taste of Democracy in Action

UML Hosts Debate among Candidates Vying to Replace U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas

Students pose for a photo outside of Durgin Hall on debate day Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Students welcomed the public to Durgin Hall for the Massachusetts 3rd Congressional District debates.

By Jill Gambon

Voters got to hear candidates address the issues and students got to participate in the political process as the university hosted debates between Democrats in the Massachusetts 3rd Congressional District race.

Held on April 29, the debates brought 12 candidates to Durgin Hall to field questions about foreign policy, the federal deficit, wage stagnation, gun policy, immigration and other topics. The candidates are seeking the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, who is stepping down at the end of the year.

The candidates were split in two groups, based on the results of a Boston Globe-UMass Lowell poll conducted in April. The poll showed a majority (59 percent) of respondents have not yet made up their minds about whom they will vote for in the Sept. 4 primary. 

The debates, sponsored by UML’s Center for Public Opinion and The Boston Globe, attracted hundreds of attendees. UMass President Marty Meehan was on hand, as were local elected officials, candidates’ families and supporters, students and faculty. 

Boston Globe State House Bureau Chief Frank Phillips, student David Todisco and Lowell Sun city hall reporter Rick Sobey sit at the panelist table. Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Political science major David Todisco, center, serves as a debate panelist along with Boston Globe State House Bureau Chief Frank Phillips, left, and Lowell Sun city hall reporter Rick Sobey.

Shaila Bornstein, a junior majoring in criminal justice, was a panelist during the first debate, and David Todisco, a senior political science major, participated in the second.

Students from UML’s College Democrats chapter served as timekeepers and ushers.

“Civic engagement by young people on both sides of the political aisle is important to the health of our democracy. I’m pleased UMass Lowell students are at the forefront,” Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney said in welcoming attendees to Durgin Hall.

Todisco, president of UML’s College Democrats, agreed. 

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity,” he said, adding that students are paying attention to the race, and several candidates have already come to campus to meet with his group.

Candidates stand on the Durgin Hall stage during the second debate Photo by Tory Wesnofske
With a dozen Democrats vying for the 3rd Congressional District seat, the field was divided into two debates.

Prof. Frank Talty, who is also co-director of the Center for Public Opinion, said educating the public on the issues is part of the university’s mission. 

“As a public university in a district where we are the major institution of higher learning, we have an obligation to participate in civic engagement,” he said. 

Bornstein spent the week before the debate preparing for her role as a panelist. She reviewed the questions she was going to ask, memorized the schedule and familiarized herself with the stage at Durgin. 

“I wanted to be able to speak comfortably and confidently,” she said.


Students watch the debate Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Students watch the afternoon debate at Durgin Hall.

Bornstein said the debates offered students an opportunity to get involved in the political process. 

“You get to experience democracy first-hand. You get to hear the candidates’ answers in real time and see how they respond,” she said. “That’s different than watching speeches on Facebook.” 

Facing off in the first debate were Jeff Ballinger, Beej Das, Leonard Golder, Patrick Littlefield, Bopha Malone and Keith St. John. In the second debate, candidates Alexandra Chandler, Rufus Gifford, Dan Koh, Barbara L’Italien, Juana Matias and Lori Trahan took the stage. 

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Pepperell businessman Rick Greene, the only Republican candidate in the race, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Watch the debates.