On Jan. 18, UTD Democrats planned for four congressional candidates for D-32 to debate at UTD, which is located within the district. Instead, the debate was moved off campus the day before by Richardson Area Democrats; students and local politicians are saying the move “disenfranchises” students and impedes civic outreach.
Meadow Pena and Isabella Spartz, president and vice president of UTD Dems, said that the club was previously defunct in spring 2023 after a fallout with RAD, and they were inspired to restart it after a campaign event with Averie Bishop. As UTD Dems began to host events on campus, Spartz and Pena said that RAD President Ginny Laughlin began to interact with UTD Dems more, asking them to promote RAD events in exchange for financial donations of $75. In an interview, UTD Dems said that the money never came.
“I think it’s just disappointing that something that was so accessible for students, something that was connecting students and meant for students and run by students, was pulled away by someone else’s own ego,” Spartz said.
While RAD is officially in charge of local Democratic party activity in Richardson, Laughlin said that they have a low youth turnout rate, according to text messages sent to Pena. In contrast, UTD Dems has signed up more than 200 Comets at their voter registration drives. UTD Dems has also brought candidates like Averie Bishop, Brian Williams, Callie Butcher, and Derek Avery to campus.
After UTD Dems announced that the event was cancelled, Francine Ly, Theresa Bui, Averie Bishop and Tsion Amare – all political candidates in the area around campus – said they were disappointed with the move. Ly said the move wasn’t necessarily unusual, since local elections are often under-publicized and heavily influenced by organizers, who determine what type of outreach will be attempted.
“I was so disappointed that the debate was moved,” Ly said. “This is how the mechanism works, candidates and the party don’t reach out properly until the election is 30 to 60 days away … and with local elections you don’t get a lot of media coverage, which leads to reduced turnout because of a reduced reach.”
Pena and Spartz said that the Student Services Auxiliary Auditorium had been reserved with the intention of allowing up to 400 people to attend the event in person. RAD moved the event to the Richardson Event Center inside Funasia, which can only accommodate a maximum of 250 people. Approximately 150 people attended the debate, which falls below the approximately 200 RSVPs received by UTD Dems.
On Jan. 12 Pena and Spartz sent RAD an email asking to clarify final issues before the debate, including parking, recording of the event and the debate itinerary. At the time Spartz and Pena worked for the political campaign of a local Democratic candidate who had been working with RAD.
“We noticed that when we put our foot down and we didn’t agree with them, that was when we were told that we were being rude, when our bosses got called, and [when] things started changing,” Pena said.
After the email was sent, Spartz and Pena said that Laughlin called their supervisor in the campaign to complain about their rudeness when working with her. Spartz said that they had to leave their jobs at the campaign to speak out about the issue.
“Instead of the campaign supporting us and not working with RAD anymore, they basically said, ‘We won’t make you work with them, but the campaign was still gonna continue to work with RAD,’” Spartz said.
Spartz and Pena said they wanted to platform Comets’ voices by having a student as moderator; instead, RAD chose Gromer Jeffers of Dallas Morning News. Laughlin said that a student could not serve as the moderator because the moderator had to be a local “celebrity-type person”. Spartz suggested individuals who had worked with UTD Dems in the past like Averie Bishop and members of the Richardson city council, which Laughlin declined.
Spartz and Pena said that while they were disappointed in the location change, they still want students to be involved on campus to change things for the better. Laughlin declined to comment on any part of the debate or the events leading up to its relocation.
“They chose to put their own pride above all else,” Pena said. “They didn’t listen to us and they didn’t really care what students had to say.”