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My First Campaign Experience
By John R. Dixon, 10
Scholastic Student Reporter

John Dixon asks Senator John Edwards about health care at Township Hall on Friday in Columbia, South Carolina. Click on the picture to read more about John Dixon. (Photo: Steven Ehrenberg)
Being chosen as a member of the 2004 Scholastic Kids Press Corp was a great honor, but it came with great responsibility as well. My first assignment was to cover the debate at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, two hours from my home, after three or four days of being icebound by a freak winter storm.

I was excited and nervous about going to the debate. We had very good seats and I was able to gather information about the candidates and get a feel for their positions. I was impressed by Senator John Kerry's easy air of leadership and the stage presence of well-spoken candidates such as the Reverend Al Sharpton and General Wesley Clark. Senator John Edwards and Congressman Dennis Kucinich were bold and animated. Senator Joe Lieberman and former Governor Howard Dean were frank and confident on stage. It was an interesting look into a new world for me.

The next day we went to a forum at the Township Auditorium in Columbia, South Carolina, my hometown. It was exciting to see the different groups march into the auditorium. People came from everywhere! The candidates took questions from the families up on the stage and addressed the issues as they came up. I had the opportunity to see how each candidate related to people. This perspective allowed me to carefully choose the questions I would pose to each candidate later in the "spin room," where the candidates talked to reporters. My fellow Scholastic Student Reporters and I were treated like real adult journalists and allowed equal access to the candidates. Some of our adult peers were as interested in us as we were in the candidates! I had to keep reminding myself not to get lost in the excitement because I had a job to do.

It took me awhile to learn how to get noticed so that I could ask my questions. At first, I was too timid to force myself to the forefront of the crowd that was questioning General Clark, who was the first to take the podium. But by the time Senator Edwards, the second speaker, came to address the press, I had worked my way to the front, slightly to the side of the podium, and was thrilled when he called on me for a question.

Senator Edwards was born in a mill village in my home state, so I had the perfect question for him. I asked, "How do you plan to offset job loss in manufacturing and agriculture and create jobs for Americans?" He smiled and told me it was a good question. I smiled back as he looked me straight in the eye and told me he planned to "change the way we have trade agreements so that we don't continue to see the loss of jobs we are seeing now." He also promised to change tax codes, bring jobs to rural communities, and create high-speed Internet access in those communities so that "they can be competitive with other places in trying to attract jobs." This would be good news for the people of my state, because we still depend upon agriculture and manufacturing for jobs.

The next candidate to step up was Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. I had listened with interest to his ideas on health care at the debate the previous night, because that is a big issue for my family, and we wanted to know more. When he called on me to ask the first question, I said, "In view of rising health care costs and high unemployment rates, do you have a plan for health care reform? If so, can you explain the basics of that plan?"

Congressman Kucinich said, "I do have a plan, John." He then spoke about a "single payer" health care system, saying that it would provide dental, vision, mental health, and long-term care for everybody.

Just as I was wondering how we would pay for such a plan, he said, "Now, when I tell people about this, John, the first question they ask is how are we going to pay for it. You know what? We are already paying for a universal standard of care—we're just not getting it. [About] $1.6 trillion in this country right now goes for health expenses, but $400 billion of that, a big chunk of that money goes for corporations, advertising, marketing, lobbying, corporate executive salaries, profits. I want to take all of that money and put it into care for people instead of for profit."

I was surprised to see Governor Dean walk in because he was not scheduled to make an appearance. But I had a question for him, too. I asked him how he planned to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. He was quick to answer.

"First we're going to have elections so that the Iraqi Council and constitution will be supported by the Iraqi people," he said. "Then we're going to bring in other troops from other countries to replace our National Guard and half of our regular troops that are over there." Governor Dean to reminded us that we had to remain long enough to create a stable government but not long enough to be a "demoralizing" factor.

My final question went to Rev. Sharpton, the last candidate to address the assembled press. I asked Rev. Sharpton how he planned to support a continued push for excellence in public education in the face of budget cuts and our sluggish economy. His reply was short and to the point. "Put money back in Title 1, raise the standards in terms of teacher salaries, and . . . give incentives to students studying to be teachers." He added that we would reduce the deficit by changing the tax code, regulating big business, and getting rid of President Bush's tax cuts.

I came away from my experience at the forum with a new understanding of some of the election issues most important to me. I also left wondering who I would vote for if I were old enough to vote, and wishing that I had been able to question the other three candidates as well. I think I am beginning to understand the importance of the political process. This is what our men and women of the armed forces have always fought to preserve—the freedom to choose who governs us.