Meeting at the virtual town hall

The next generation of voters wades into presidential politics

Middle-school student Dawand Bagsby gets a political education after shaking hands with Barack Obama.

Middle-school student Dawand Bagsby gets a political education after shaking hands with Barack Obama.

SN&R Photo By Anne Stokes

When presidential candidate Barack Obama finished his speech in Oakland last month, the crowd rushed the stage for a chance to shake his hand. Dawand Bagsby, a sixth-grader from Galt, did not want to be left out. “Ms. Green said ‘go for it.’ I went for it.”

Taking his teacher’s advice, Bagsby shook Obama’s hand and told him he hoped he’d be a good president. In a school essay about his experience, he explained that Obama seemed to care about assisting people with the struggles of daily life, like getting doctors’ appointments and preparing for job interviews. “I felt kind of happy when he started to talk about that because people need help with that kind of stuff,” Bagsby wrote.

With that one handshake, another young activist was born.

Bagsby, a shy, football-playing, San Francisco Giants-loving 12-year-old, had never been to a political rally before. And here he was, a black foster kid from Galt shaking hands with a black man who’s talking about becoming the next U.S. president. Bagsby thought that was pretty neat.

“I think he’s cool,” Bagsby said.

When Bagsby’s math and language arts teacher, Kathy Green, told him about another event at which Obama would speak, Bagsby asked to tag along.

Last Tuesday, Bagsby, Green and about 40 other people joined together at a downtown Sacramento home for a virtual town-hall meeting with seven presidential candidates, organized by More than 10,000 people gathered in about 1,000 living rooms, bars, libraries and backyards across the country, according to the organization’s Web site, to listen to the candidates discuss one element on their campaigns: Their views on Iraq and plans for bringing the troops home safely.

Benjamin Sher turned his Sacramento home into a virtual town hall.

At MoveOn member Benjamin Sher’s Sacramento house, 40 pairs of eyes glued themselves to the large-screen television connected to Sher’s laptop, so everyone had a clear view of a slide presentation that accompanied the audio feed of questions and answers. During the town-hall meeting, the crowd of mostly middle-age individuals—who did not all identify as Democrats but all resoundingly denied being Republicans—said very little and listened a lot.

MoveOn invited 12 candidates to participate in the moderated online conversation and John Edwards, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Barack Obama accepted. The five Republican candidates refused.

MoveOn organized the event so that candidates could converse directly with voters while getting a progressive perspective into the campaign mix early on. In the next couple months, MoveOn will hold similar virtual meetings on global warming and health care.

Prior to Tuesday’s event, members submitted more than 6,800 potential questions and cast about 600,000 votes to determine which ones would be selected. Each candidate was asked three questions and was given one minute for a closing statement. Candidates fielded questions about timeframes for withdrawing troops from Iraq, war profiteering, funding of the war and whether they agreed with the permanent army bases being set up in Iraq. Transcripts can be found at

“They all have a different slant,” said Milo Turaylich of Clarksburg, after hearing from the first four candidates. He said he plans to vote for the Democrat candidate with the best chance of beating a Republican.

While many of the people sitting in Sher’s living room were undecided on how to cast their vote in next February’s California primaries when they showed up, some left with a new clarity. One man was swayed by Edwards’ presentation, which he called, “pretty strong.” Another attendee said she still wanted to vote for Al Gore.

The following day, MoveOn members nationwide voted that Obama would be the candidate most qualified to lead the country out of war. Edwards came in a close second.

As for Bagsby, his loyalty remains with Obama. After the meeting, Ralph Delonch, a black man and member of the local Obama meet up group, was so impressed at seeing a young person at the event, he gave Bagsby his copy of Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope.

Now, Bagsby just wishes he were old enough to vote.