If you're going to be among the crowd sitting behind a political candidate during a televised speech, there are rules to follow: Take off the sunglasses, put down the can of Red Bull. No iPods, no cell phones.
“I need you to behave; you're going to be on TV.”
And with that command from a school administrator, 100 or so Southwest High School students were directed to get up from the south-facing bleachers in the school's gym and move to the bleachers on the opposite side. There, they sat behind a spotlighted podium and amid campaign signs, a large American flag and a banner for the San Diego County Democratic Party.
The high school, located in San Ysidro where the 5 and 905 freeways intersect and from which you can see the hills of northern Tijuana, was the place last Thursday for a by-proxy Democratic candidates' forum on immigration issues—meaning the Clinton and Obama campaigns sent over representatives, “high-ranking, statewide political leaders,” as the event's sponsors promised. The candidates themselves were preparing for a debate that night at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.
Representing the Clinton campaign: Maria Echaveste, a UC Berkeley law professor, former deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and currently a member of his wife's team of foreign-policy advisors. On the Obama side: state Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, an Obama supporter who was speaking on his behalf for the first time. The proxies spoke one at a time and were thrown some basic questions by a moderator: “Are immigrants today an asset or a detriment?” (Answer: Asset.) Does the candidate support a streamlined legalization process? (Answer: Yes.) Each proxy said her candidate supports the DREAM Act—a piece of failed legislation that would have allowed undocumented-immigrant children to qualify for college-tuition loans and legal-immigrant status if they meet certain requirements—and each said her candidate doesn't think big fences make the best neighbors.
For Saldaña, the format proved a little awkward at times. Questions were posed as if she was the candidate: “Would you…?” or “Do you…?” rather than “Does Sen. Obama…?” She kept an eye on pages of notes she'd been handed by the Obama campaign, though at one point she answered a question by referencing her own experience as a community-college teacher.
Echaveste, meanwhile, is a longtime friend of the Clintons. She was far more at-ease in the proxy role, enough so to manipulate the conversation to focus on the message the Clinton campaign's tried so hard to drive home: Obama's a newbie; Hillary's old-hat.
“We have the most exciting candidates on the Democratic side,” Echaveste told the students. “Whether we have [Clinton or Obama] as president, the world will look at us differently.” But….
“We need to elect an individual who has the skills and experience to do the job. Barack Obama will take longer to gain those skills and experience,” Echaveste said, her right arm crooked and resting casually on the podium.
Britanny Jacobo, a senior, was swayed. “The whole experience [theme] has me on her side,” she said after the forum.
So, too, was Jacobo's friend, junior Mai Yang: “I think that Hillary Clinton's representative had a stronger message; she's a better speaker.”
As students filed out, those who were 18 and not yet registered to vote could stop at a folding table to register.
“Eighteen- to 25-year-olds have the most powerful voice,” one forum organizer told them (this year, voting among that age group is expected to hit its highest level since Richard Nixon lowered the voting age to 18 in 1972.)
But with influence comes responsibility, and Yang and Jacobo mulled over Echaveste's point about either candidate being a first-time-ever president in terms of race or gender—if anything, they're feeling a little anxious about the impact.
“If one gets elected, it sends a message that we're not ready for the other,” Yang pointed out.
“Yeah,” Jacobo agreed, “does a white woman have more power? Are we ready for an African-American president?”“It's something I've been thinking about for awhile,” Yang said.