Harper, League of Women Voters collaborate to host congressional candidate forum


Raja Krishnamoorthi (D) takes the mic against opponent Chris Dargis (R) at a candidate panel for the 8th district Illinois congressional race on October 20, 2022 at Harper College. (Photo by Khushi Gandhi)

With the national midterm elections less than a month away, Illinois’ 8th Congressional District candidates Chris Dargis (R) and incumbent Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D) took the debate to Harper College’s Building D this past Thursday.

Hosted in association with the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Palatine, this candidate forum was jointly moderated by Harper students and LWV members. Featuring debate questions that were sourced from Harper students, Dargis and Krishnamoorthi discussed many of the hot button issues of the past year, including the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, how they plan to deal with rising inflation and their views on college loan forgiveness. 

Julia Chom – a resident of the district attended the forum out of her desire to understand the different angles of our “political climate in general.” While she has already made up her mind about which candidate she’ll cast her vote for in November, Chom remarked that she believes the forum was an eye-opening experience nonetheless. 

“It was great to actually hear each candidate’s position just straight up. Not just like something written, or fluff, but on the spot,” Chom said. “They’re telling you just what they think. You get to see a different side of them, and you can kinda see how the opposing candidate might agitate them and watch how [they react].”

While she does not consider herself a “political person” per se, Chom has taken part in protests in the past and always tries to keep up with current events. Even so, more intimate in-person political experiences like this one are a far cry from what she’s become used to. 

“I’ve heard all these points been made over and over, but now it’s directly out of their mouth and they get to give their full reasoning,” Chom said. “I definitely gained a lot more from [being there] than I would’ve if I just read about it in an article.”

According to LWV-Palatine co-president Cathy Cortez, these congressional forums have been integral to LWV’s mission of promoting political engagement since the group’s very beginnings. Over the past few years, however, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily forced many LWV forums to be held remotely through Zoom calls. 

Cortez and Chom both agree that bringing politicians face-to-face with their constituents to talk out the issues in earnest, is one of the best forms of civic engagement. 

audience listen to candidates at political forum.
District constituents listen closely to candidates Raja Krishnamoorthi (D) and Chris Dargis (R) at a political forum held at Harper on October 20, 2022. (Photo by Kushi Gandhi)

“The candidates like it better because it gives them a chance to meet their constituents, but there’s also something about the comradery of coming together to talk about civic duty that I just like,” Cortez said. “Whether it’s at Harper or any other place in the community where you could host it, I just like having the feeling of a live format. And here, we have the added dynamic of having the students involved.” 

The questions provided for the candidates were pre-screened by both LWV staff and the students assisting with the event. Cortez, who has drafted debate questions for countless different forums over her four year tenure as co-president, said she appreciated student input.

As a result, candidates get to explore new topics relevant to younger voters.  Thursday’s forum included discussion on healthcare options for young people seeking to transition, how to deal with political divisiveness on college campuses and advice for students seeking to pursue politics themselves. 

One of the student moderators, freshman Aisha Hernandez, is no stranger to political engagement. As a senator in Harper’s Student Government Association (SGA) and a member of the Muslim Student Association, Hernandez jumped at the opportunity to moderate a congressional debate as soon as she heard about the opportunity.  Seeing that LWV was involved only encouraged her even more: she was very familiar with the group, as they had hosted events through her high school in the past. 

Hernandez hasn’t had the opportunity to vote yet, since she only just turned 18 recently. But now, after shaking hands with both Dargis and Krishnamoorthi and helping lead their discussions, Hernandez said she can’t wait for the chance to bear that responsibility. 

“I mean, we are adults – we’re young adults now, and we are the future,” Hernandez said. “I feel like all people should get involved to a degree, even if it’s just voting and knowing who these candidates are and why they’re running for these positions.”

Being the first moderator to take the stage – as well as having to project her naturally quiet voice  due to the lack of a microphone– was a “nerve-wracking” experience for Hernandez, but one that she doesn’t regret and would do again in a heartbeat. 

Ultimately, the fact that Hernandez had the chance to have such an experience is why Harper English professor and organizer of the forum Dr. Stephanie Horton believes that the school’s relationship with local groups such as LWV-Palatine is so important.

“We are a ‘community’ college: we’re here to serve the community,” Horton said. “It’s important that we serve as a place for students to take their learning beyond the classroom. … [But at first], we can help equip them with the knowledge that they need to circle back and give to their community. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Horton, along with fellow faculty member Joe Scrima, was hand-selected by the Harper College board to be the co-leads of a goal team as part of Harper’s four-year Strategic Plan program. Their team’s focus particularly is promotion of equity through community outreach. 

Now on year three of the program, Horton reached out to LWV over the summer to see if collaboration was possible. LWV has been a presence on campus for quite some time, making appearances at events such as this year’s Hullabaloo as well as holding voter registration drives on campus.

“The League is so important at this point in our history because politics have become so divisive,” Horton said. “By hosting these events where it’s nonpartisan and candidates are given the opportunity to just talk about their positions, where people come just so they can become informed about the issues, is just an incredible touchpoint.” 

Through their correspondence, the idea of a congressional forum hosted by Harper stood head and shoulders above the rest. And though Horton has 10 years of experience as a professor at Harper, this type of project was new to her. 

“This is my very first time putting together an event period, and let alone one of this magnitude and impact,” Horton said. “It feels absolutely wonderful, and I think the highlight for me is just seeing that our students had a chance and a platform to get involved as well.” 

Whether it be as a first time voter or a first time debate organizer, a leap-of-faith is par for the course for anyone taking up new responsibilities for the first time. But according to Cortez, even the smallest effort is worth it – and the folks at the LWV would at least like to give you a chance to look before you leap, if you’re willing.  

“It will ultimately make a difference to be involved politically, and by ‘politics’ I don’t mean ‘partisanism,’” Cortez said. “I mean getting involved in the way that our country works, getting the chance to shake hands with the people making those decisions in D.C., maybe even having those aspirations for themselves. … And, if nothing else, you vote.”