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Student Democrats, Denton Together co-host candidate forum on campus

Student Democrats, Denton Together co-host candidate forum on campus

Student Democrats, Denton Together co-host candidate forum on campus
February 21
19:53 2022
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Texas Democrat Party Chair Candidate Gilberto Hinojosa attends the Texas Candidate Forum at the University of North Texas Lyceum to speak on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022 in Denton, TX.

Students, citizens, politicians and professors from across Texas gathered in the Union’s Lyceum to listen to five candidates speak at a Saturday forum hosted by UNT College Democrats and Denton Together, a local progressive group.

The forum, an event in the works since late October 2020, allowed attorney general and party chair candidates to share their visions for the future of Texas directly to constituents. The forum itself would actually be divided into two: one hour dedicated to the party chair candidates and one for the attorney general candidates.

The event kicked off with separate introductions from its two co-hosts, UNT College Dems President Bella Armenta and Denton Together President Ira Bershad.

“Whether you drove across Texas or just came from your dorm room, thank you so much for coming,” Armenta said.

While addressing the crowd, both Armenta and Bershad emphasized the importance of the event and its many attendees, some of which were elected Denton officials themselves.

“The party dismisses young voters every day,” Armenta said. “Having all these older people — county chairs, precinct chairs, a lot of local candidates and elected officials — coming out means a lot.”

The co-hosts were excited for the chance to hold the event on a university campus.

“Engaging the young voters and students is a huge opportunity to get people involved at an earlier age,” Bershad said. “Even though the event is open to the public, my favorite place is having events on college campuses.”

After the introductions, event moderator Jason Whitely, host of WFAA’s “Inside Texas Politics,” was welcomed onstage to introduce the first group of candidates and explain the rules of the debate. Each candidate would be limited to 60 seconds for an introduction, 90 seconds for each response to a question and to 60 seconds for a conclusion.

The first candidate on stage was the Democratic party chair’s incumbent, Gilberto Hinojosa, followed by Houston resident Carroll G. Robinson and retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson.

“It’s great that they were able to come up here to Denton and share their vision for what they think the party should look like in the coming years,” Whitely said.

While Robinson and Olson were asked why they should be elected, Hinojosa, the party chair for the last 10 years, had to defend his decade-long legacy by explaining why he should be elected again.

Of the many questions answered during the allotted time, some repeated themes took center stage in each response. These included the message of the Democratic party in response to the Republican border security messages, the state’s infrastructure, plans to get Texas to “turn blue.”

During a five-minute break between the two groups, it was announced a third attorney general candidate, Denton civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, would not be attending the forum as promised. While no official reason was given for the last-minute change, the best guess was he was hours away at was at a separate event.

“I heard he was at another event down in Houston that involved a press conference and possibly an endorsement,” Bershad said.

The news was disappointing for some attendees, including Bershad, who stated he was never officially contacted by Merritt’s team about the cancellation. An empty chair was left for Merritt just in case, but it was never filled. The second half of the forum then continued with the remaining candidates — Brownsville lawyer Rochelle Garza and former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski.

The questions answered during the second half became more specific as candidates addressed possible legal options to fight diminishing mask mandates, anti-abortion laws and voting rights. For Garza, a civil rights attorney, those battles are detrimental to the future of the state.

“I recognize right now that we are at a crossroads in Texas and in the country when it comes to civil rights,” Garza said.

While describing her plans for a hypothetical first day as attorney general, Garza emphasized a desire to start a “clean up” of past litigation, starting with Senate Bill 8, a September 2021 law restricting access to abortion.

“I’m running to make sure that we stop Ken Paxton in his tracks,” Garza said. “I’ve beat him before and I will do it again.”

Jaworski also laid out his hypothetical first day to the audience in a very specific list he called his “day one in office menu.” At 11 a.m, for example, he would file notices to the United States Supreme Court explaining SB8 was unconstitutional.

Other objectives, Jaworski explained as he read from his phone, included press conferences and calling Texas principals to “remind them” to offer their students voter registration opportunities according to state law.

“It’s a fraught time and we are duty-bound to save our democracy,” Jaworski said. “It would be my honor to be there with you onward to Austin.”

Although the audience had a majority of nonstudents, the students who did attend were addressed multiple times and thanked for coming.

“You make a difference and you belong in these spaces,” Armenta said.

Featured Images by Maria Crane

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Alex Reece

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