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Capital Chatter: 12 takeaways from the first debate

The kids selected to participate asked a lot of questions and they weren't shy.

What do youth ages 12-19 know?

A lot. And they're not shy.

They asked all the questions at the first gubernatorial debate, held Tuesday evening at Roosevelt High School in Portland. It aired on KOIN 6, its sister television stations and nationally on C-SPAN.

Children First for Oregon came up with the debate format, hosting it with KOIN and Pamplin Media. (A different TV station reportedly had been interested in hosting but wanted its reporters to ask half the questions.)

This was only one of the three gubernatorial debates that included Independent Party candidate Patrick Starnes, along with Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and Republican Rep. Knute Buehler.

My 12 takeaways:

1. No one made gaffes. No one "lost."

2. I talked briefly afterward with Brown and Buehler. Neither gloated nor proclaimed victory. I thought that was a healthy sign for Oregon politics. Afterward, each campaign issued a press release touting what its candidate said instead of shouting "we won!"

3. Mental health is the No. 1 issue for Oregon youth. That topic constituted the largest share of questions asked of the candidates, including what they would do about suicide prevention, the effects of childhood trauma on youth of color, having too few school counselors, and related issues.

4. Both Brown and Buehler are running on her record. Brown takes pride in it; Buehler calls it a failure.

5. The audience got a better picture of Buehler and Brown as people. Starnes was left by the wayside.

6. Buehler is in a difficult position, having to differentiate himself from liberal Brown, attract the votes of centrist Oregonians but also keep the support of conservatives despite his pro-choice stance.

7. Bar stools/chairs should be banned. They're uncomfortable and awkward regardless of the setting but especially at a debate.

8. Brown does not particularly enjoy public speaking but was relaxed. Being around young people energizes her. She was greeting students by name afterward.

The same thing occurred early this year, when Brown promoed the education part of her State of the State address at high schools. Those presentations outshined the actual speech delivered to the Legislature.

9. Buehler seemed less comfortable with the format. By my count, he attacked Brown's record nine times. That is central to his campaign strategy but, given the format and generally civil nature of the debate, seemed unnecessary and distracting. Brown attacked his record twice.

This represented improved preparation by Brown, who in the past has squandered time, energy and audience interest by responding to even the pettiest criticisms.

10. Buehler praised Brown's work several times.

11. The incumbent's advantage showed. Brown knew the most about state issues. Buehler knows a lot about issues in which he's been involved, such as health care.

However, no one gave direct answers on several questions, as students pointed out.

Rose Lawrence, 15, of Portland, asked three times about bullying of LGBT youth, because she didn't think her question was being answered.

"I think it's really important we try to answer the questions," moderator Jeff Gianola of KOIN reminded the candidates.

12. The youth shined. These were their questions, not adults', although they got help in how to frame and their questions. Sixteen youths were chosen for the debate out of roughly 125 applications.

Kudos to everyone involved. It was a fascinating, informative start to the gubernatorial debates.

As Gianola told the audience before the debate started: "Your kids are amazing. … I just think it's incredible we're finally listening to young people."

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.