Election debate will feature use of social media

April 12, 2013 10:37:39 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


Two non-partisan events will bring Starkville municipal candidates off the campaign trail and into the Greensboro Center for issues-based discussions before this year's primary. 


First, many aldermen candidates will discuss their platforms and ideologies April 29 during a Greater Starkville Development Partnership forum. Then one day later, Starkville mayoral candidates - Democrats Parker Wiseman (incumbent) and Mary Lee Beal and Republican Dan Moreland - will debate local issues and make pitches for their candidacy in an event organized by Starkville High School students. 


Both events are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the Greensboro Center on their respective days. 


All three mayoral candidates are confirmed for the April 30 debate, but some aldermen declined the GSDP's invitation to its forum, GSDP CEO Jennifer Gregory said. Those Gregory said passed on the event include Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, a Republican; Ward 2 candidates Josiah Buckner, a Republican, and Lisa Wynn, a Democrat; Ward 6 candidate Lernin Pruitt, a Democrat; and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn, a Democrat. Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins, a Democrat, has yet to confirm if he will be in attendance, Gregory said. 


Along with incoming Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard, Carver is assured his place on the Starkville Board of Aldermen since he was not opposed this election cycle. 


While SHS students are preparing questions for the three mayoral candidates, social media will play a hand in soliciting questions directly from local voters. GSDP officials are asking voters to tweet their questions using the #StkElects13 hashtag. Twitter users have already begun submitting questions through social media, and Gregory says they can continue to do so now through the debate. 


Voters can also submit their questions to the Partnership via email or bring in a written copy. 


Both debates will be broadcast on WOBV and live tweeted by the Partnership. 


By directly engaging the public with social media and taking their questions straight to aldermen, Gregory said a true exchange between candidates and Starkville's voting population is created unlike in previous election cycles. 


"We think social media is a great way to engage the electorate because it provides a public place for everyone to see what questions are being asked," Gregory said. "Both of these forums provide an opportunity for (candidates) to speak to the public - to the Starkville community - directly about why the voters should choose them to represent them. We're excited about the candidates who have confirmed and are really looking forward to an informative and productive event." 


While GSDP officials are actively soliciting the public for potential forum questions, a six-student SHS committee is crafting its own questions for mayoral candidates, with topics including public education, economic development, infrastructure, Starkville-Mississippi State University relations, crime and teen affairs. That committee consists of Promote the Vote Student Coordinator Rex Ames, SHS Yearbook Editor Jordan Cohen, Mayor's Youth Council President Emily Damm, Miss. High School Journalist of the Year Leah Gibson, Student Body President Holly Travis and JROTC Commander Stacie Young. 


Seniors Ames and Cohen said first-time voters have a stake in this municipal election as many issues at play this election cycle are important to youth voters. Cohen said public education - consolidation, specifically - is, in her opinion, one of the most important issues of the day. 


"Even though I'll be graduating, my little sister is still a student here," Cohen said. "MSU-city relations are also very important because a lot of professors are drawn to the city because of the school district. My family moved here when I was 13. One of the biggest draws for coming to Starkville was its great public school system. 


"What's been great about (researching the issues) is that it's easy to complain about some things, but when you go in depth and research what's happening, you see there's been a lot of progress made in Starkville," she added. "I think in high school we're professionals with complaining ... but what I've learned in this process is that there a lot of great things happening in our city." 


SHS teachers and committee organizers R.J. Morgan and Ginger Tedder said they hope students' research and preparation makes them more civic minded and plugs them into the whole process of government. Ames said the whole process falls in his wheelhouse - he wants to pursue some sort of politics as a career. 


"It's good for our community and our school district to have a voice in the upcoming election," Morgan said. "The founding principles of journalism are civic engagement and questioning authority." 


The high school's Promote the Vote national election drive helped register more than 50 new voters last year, Tedder said, including some adults. By engaging students at an early age, Tedder said she hopes to cull voter apathy in the future. 


"It's one of the biggest problems in America right now," she said referring to voter apathy. "If you engage students at this level and make them true participants in government, then that engages them for the future. They understand that they're our future leaders and have a voice." 


Primaries will decide most Starkville municipal elections on May 7, but two races will be decided June 4.  


Wiseman, the city's current mayor, will face Beal, a former long-serving city alderman, in their respective primary. The winner will then face Moreland, the Starkville Parks Commission Board leader, in June.  


Buckner entered the Ward 2 race on the last day of qualification. He will face the winner of May's Democratic primary between incumbent Sandra Sistrunk and Wynn.  


Perkins, a five-term alderman, faces a re-election fight for the first time in his career. He ran unopposed in each election since unseating his predecessor in 1993. Pruitt, the son of Maben Mayor Larry Pruitt, will challenge Perkins in the May Democratic primary.  


Two other sitting aldermen - Ward 3's Eric Parker, a Republican, and Vaughn - also face primary battles.  


Republican David Little submitted qualification documents for Ward 3's race on Jan. 4. He serves as the Mississippi Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance District Claims Office's manager and has worked for the company for more than 20 years.  


Democrat Janette Self, who Vaughn defeated in the previous city election cycle, served as Ward 7's alderman from 2005-2009. She qualified for this year's race on Feb. 6.  


Democrats John Gaskin and Jason Walker will also face off in the May primary. Gaskin, who Parker defeated in the 2009 Ward 3 race, works as a financial analyst for Mossy Oak in West Point. Walker is a Starkville Planning and Zoning Commission member and a Mississippi State University associate professor of landscape architecture.  


Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch