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Passing the Eye Test: Democrats assess presidential candidates during debate watch party

A group gathers Dec. 19 at the Downers Grove Township Democratic Organization headquarters in Downers Grove to watch the Democratic presidential debate.
A group gathers Dec. 19 at the Downers Grove Township Democratic Organization headquarters in Downers Grove to watch the Democratic presidential debate.

DOWNERS GROVE – As a new Downers Grove resident, Dan Johnston has the opportunity to come together with other Democrats to tune into the Democratic presidential debates and discuss the candidates, something he wasn’t able to do in Indiana. 

“This group and watching the debate has brought people together,” Johnston said Dec. 19 during a debate watch party at the Downers Grove Township Democratic Organization headquarters. “I’ve been drawn to it because [the group] does a lot of things that include impacting the community and serves as a central place for people to meet.” 

About 20 people turned out to watch the Democratic presidential hopefuls speak on topics that included foreign policy and big-money donors. 

Attendees quieted to listen to candidates speak while occasionally clapping and cheering for the candidate of their choice. Attendees spoke during commercial breaks to trade opinions and ideas on the debate.

Before the debate started, several individuals wondered how the recent impeachment vote might play a role in the debate. Indeed, the first question to candidates was on the subject. All candidates expressed support for a vote to impeach President Donald Trump. 

The sixth debate of the year had the fewest candidates on stage. Seven candidates – Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer – participated in the sixth debate, which was in Los Angeles.

“We hold these watch parties to build a community for the Democrats in DuPage County,” said Downers Grove resident Maryann Vazquez, who is active in the Buttigieg campaign. “So many people believe there are no Democrats in DuPage, but clearly the win of Rep. Sean Casten showed that all we needed to do was wake up.” 

Vazquez said she started out as a Julián Castro supporter but now supports Buttigieg because of his “willingness to bring people together.”

“I also hoped for a woman, but I didn’t see Klobuchar or [Kamala] Harris getting any traction,” Vazquez said.

Johnston said he never seriously considered Klobuchar either until the November debate because she had good talking points. In November, Klobuchar spoke about women being held to a different standard than male candidates. 

Watch party attendees at first opposed the somewhat heated debate exchange between Buttigieg and Warren regarding big-money donors in American politics. However, most agreed with Buttigieg and his statement about Warren being a millionaire and Buttigieg not being one.

Attendees were cheerful when a moderator noted that if Warren was to beat out Trump, she would be the oldest person elected to the White House. She responded with “I’d also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated.” 

Buttigieg was a popular candidate among several at the party, but Warren garnered support, too. Phil Ladner said he supports Warren because of her stance on Medicare for All and tuition-free college. 

“The country would benefit from free college so much,” Ladner said. “People would come out of college and they'd be able to buy homes, get married, and have children, rather than having to pay off enormous bills.” 

Diane Hewitt, another Warren supporter, echoed Ladner’s feelings about tuition-free college and Medicare for All. Hewitt said Warren has created big-policy ideas that need to take action for the future. 

Ladner called Biden a candidate who seemed out of touch with the American people. Ladner would have liked to have seen less of Biden during the debates.

“I think Biden is damaged now,” he said. “I think Trump succeeded in what he wanted in terms of Joe Biden, although it got him the cost of him being impeached.” 

Emily Friel, a former Harris supporter, said she’s still undecided after the senator from California decided to drop out of the race. She called Harris the perfect candidate to stand up to Trump.   

“Harris was tough. She just didn’t take any guff with anybody,” Friel said. “Warren is the same way, but Harris was a little more authoritative than Warren.” 

Friel said she attends the watch parties because she enjoys the energy that bounces off everyone. 

“I come to meet people, too, people who think the same way where we're all on the same page,” Friel said. “I’m new to the area, too, so I’m getting to know more people here.”