An upcoming debate for the 2018 gubernatorial primary is being put on by an unlikely group – high school students.
Seven Democratic candidates were invited to the Wednesday event, which will be a first for Whitney Young Magnet High, school officials said.
Senior Jeremy Liskar, 17, who came up with the idea, and classmate Anna Domahidi, also 17, will moderate the discussion, which will involve questions submitted by their peers.
"We went to make our pitch and the first thing we said (to Principal Joyce Kenner) was, 'What's the biggest thing that's ever happened to the school?' " Domahidi said. " 'We're going to do something bigger.' "
Political science experts said debates hosted by high school students are uncommon.
"It's extraordinarily unusual and may well be the first one in Illinois," said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former alderman.
Liskar's idea started the way many great ideas start – scrawled on a napkin.
"I still have that napkin," he said with a laugh.
Liskar and Domahidi have been passionate about getting young people engaged in politics throughout high school. After the 2016 presidential election, they organized a town hall at Whitney Young to discuss what to expect under President Donald Trump.
Bryan Tyrpin, along with fellow Whitney Young social studies teacher Alayna Washington, worked with Liskar and Domahidi to organize the post-election town hall. They have been advising the seniors on planning since they started receiving candidate confirmations in the spring.
"The students really put this all together," Tyrpin said. "It's really just been Anna and Jeremy."
Nick Kachiroubas, an associate teaching professor at DePaul University's School of Public Service, said young people had a demonstrable effect on the result of the 2016 election. Many young Bernie Sanders supporters did not turn out to vote for eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election – a choice that Kachiroubas said contributed to Clinton's election loss.
And even citizens who are too young to participate electorally can affect political contests, he said.
"Young people do have a voice in a sense of being able to ask questions, even if they can't vote," Kachiroubas said. "They have an influence factor on people in their lives or households who do vote."
Kachiroubas and other political science experts throughout the state agreed it was imperative for young Illinoisans to become politically engaged now more than ever, as the state attempts to rebound from more than two years without a budget.
"It's a good time for young people in Illinois to be paying attention," said Brian J. Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "We're in the worst fiscal state of any of the 50 states. Young people, if they're going to stay in the state, are going to be saddled with the enormous task of filling up this big hole we've dug."
After the "napkin idea," Liskar and Domahidi decided in spring to check the calendar and start approaching candidates. They attended an April community event in Evanston, Ill., where they met Democratic candidate and Chicago Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th.
"I was like, 'Jeremy, you have to get dressed very professionally because we're young. They're not going to take us seriously unless we look really formal,' " Domahidi said. "We both go in very overdressed. It was in a dance studio ... and we had to take off our shoes. And Ameya Pawar was kind of in the middle of the circle, also with his shoes off."
The students approached Pawar at the event's end with their idea. After a few days of emailing, his campaign formally accepted their invitation.
"The correspondence with these students and the campaign have been nothing short of respectful, professional and written with a refreshing sense of energy and enthusiasm at the idea of fostering student engagement in the political process," said Tom Elliott, communications director for Pawar's campaign.
By the end of the school year, Domahidi and Liskar said the rest of the candidates had accepted their invitation.
In the days leading up to the debate, Domahidi and Liskar circulated an online form where peers could submit questions for the participants in a range of categories, from race relations to the economy. Not surprisingly, the education section made up roughly half of the questions.
Downstate candidate Bob Daiber, regional superintendent of schools for Madison County, said he anticipated questions about higher education and social issues.
"Their organizational approach has been excellent," Daiber said. "I look forward for this to be a very well put together event – maybe even better than the other ones we've done."
Students are collecting $5 donations from those interested in attending the debate and will give the proceeds to hurricane relief efforts.
Last week, the seniors assembled more than 20 student volunteers from all four grades who were assigned responsibilities ranging from security to purchasing refreshments for the debate. A few had to work around other activities scheduled for Wednesday – from sports practice to a meeting of the Chicago Young Feminist Conference to a Chicago Student Union obligation – but they were committed to being involved.
Students spent a bulk of the meeting reviewing the questions their classmates had submitted, narrowing them down to what they thought were the most important issues of the day.
Sometimes the conversation derailed on issues like whether to create a Snapchat filter for the debate – that decision was shuffled to students on the social media team. By the end of the discussion, everyone in the room was charged up.
On his way out, senior Nick Monocchio, who has worked on Democratic Candidate J.B. Pritzker's campaign, placed a hand on Liskar's shoulder.
"This is the coolest thing ever," he said.