Millions of dollars have been spent already in the 13th Congressional District race in Illinois, one of the most closely watched fights in the country. And at the center of the campaign Wednesday was Illinois State senior Andrew Manno.
The Student Government Association president was co-moderator of the first debate between Republican Rodney Davis and Democrat David Gill, held in front of at least 800 people at the Bone Student Center’s Brown Ballroom. Manno, a political science and English major, was joined by two co-moderators, Politics and Government Professor Emeritus Bob Bradley and Cities 92.9 local radio host Robert Rees.
Several questions during the hourlong debate came from other Illinois State students. Manno said it was his idea to solicit questions from his peers, which he did in a mass email to the entire student body. Manno said he received more feedback to that request than any other email he’s sent the student body, he said.
“It was really telling, that students were focused in on the election,” Manno said.
Manno’s questions Wednesday touched on deficit-cutting, Internet regulation and bipartisanship. But the No. 1 question from students, as he posed to the candidates, was a pocketbook issue.
“Will you do anything to reduce the cost of college, make financial aid more accessible, and more specifically, how will you do it?” Manno asked Gill and Davis. Both said that they wanted to increase the availability of Pell Grants, one of the rare areas of agreement between the candidates Wednesday.
“It was definitely a fierce debate,” he said. “That really showed on stage.”
One of the preparation meetings between Manno, Bradley and Rees happened to take place during the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In that debate, moderator Jim Lehrer was notoriously walked all over – “steamrolled,” as Manno puts it – by the two candidates.
“The time limits and all the rules didn’t matter anymore,” he said. “We definitely did not want that to happen.”
Manno also prepared by watching footage from the 2010 debate at Illinois State between Democratic incumbent Rep. Debbie Halvorson and challenger Republican Adam Kinzinger ’00, to see how co-moderator and then-SGA President David Marquis handled the job. Manno made sure he was well-prepared.
“Once it starts, you’re so focused in on the debate, you don’t really realize how nervous you are,” he said.
Manno plans to attend law school after graduation in May, preferably in the Washington, D.C., area, in hopes of a career in politics.
Wednesday’s debate was co-sponsored by Illinois State’s American Democracy Project, Phi Sigma Alpha, McLean County Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters, and the Student Government Association.
Ryan Denham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.