Did Anderson Cooper just say my name? Did John Kasich interrupt him to finish answering someone else’s question? Was I just on national TV seeming confused and annoyed? Did Montell Williams just tweet at me?
Never did I, a journalism student at Marquette University, imagine that CNN would choose me to ask a Republican presidential candidate a question during its “town hall” event at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee, a week before the Wisconsin primary election on April 5.
But there I was, standing with a wireless mic in an aisle among hundreds of people – and who knows how many more watching at home – with my favorite media personality trying to introduce me to the governor of my home state, Ohio, who was standing on stage with him.
“This is Julie Grace. She’s a student at Marquette University,” Cooper said as my face appeared on TV. Suddenly, Kasich interrupted him to continue answering the question asked by someone else just before. My facial expression relayed how odd that was, as neither Ted Cruz nor Donald Trump, the competition for the GOP nomination, had done that during their hourlong sessions.
A moment later, Cooper says my name again – surreal, right? – and tells Kasich that I’m supporting him. “Oh, you are?” the governor replied, as though he was surprised.
“Good. OK. Say something really, really good.”
“I’ll try,” I said, laughing, before finally getting to ask my question: “In Europe, many far right, conservative parties – anti-immigrant parties – have been gaining momentum recently. Specifically, Germany, Sweden, France and Britain. Do you think that a similar movement is occurring here in the U.S? And if so, how can the Republican Party address this?”
Kasich spent about 90 seconds responding. I listened attentively, mindful that my face was still on TV. He said that the U.S. must protect its borders, and that he supports the guest worker program and a pathway toward legalization. He also said Americans should not begin “yanking people out of their homes, leaving their kids on the front porch crying and screaming.”
I liked his answer and even more so that he actually answered my question. That wasn’t the case for most audience questions asked during the event, particularly of Cruz and Trump.
So how did I get to ask a presidential candidate a question on CNN? I’m not exactly sure.
A friend had invited me to attend the event as his guest a few days before, while I was visiting Ireland during spring and Easter break. To my surprise, someone from the network contacted my friend, said they were interested in me and asked if I would submit possible questions for any of the candidates. Why interested in me? Who knows? One of my professors says he thinks it’s because I’m from one of the candidate’s home state – an all-important swing state – and spent a semester last year working in the Capitol Hill office of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin).
In any case, CNN initially said I would ask Trump a question related to his low approval ratings among women. Hours before the event, though, the network said I would interact with Kasich.
My 150 seconds of TV time – indeed the entire town hall experience – reinforced my passions for politics and journalism, and confirmed my desire for a career in which these areas intersect. Someday, perhaps, I’ll get paid to ask questions.
Following the event, many people reached out to me via Facebook (including 60 friend requests) and Twitter (more than 100 new followers).
“Loved your question tonight about anti-immigration,” a professor from the University of Pennsylvania messaged me via Facebook.
“@JulGrace3 with a BRILLIANT question for @JohnKasich at #GOPTownHall – well done Julie! #Kasich4Us,” tweeted talk show host Montel Williams.
CNN Politics that night tweeted a 76-second video segment of Kasich answering my question. It got 187 retweets and 378 likes. All in all, while I certainly didn’t break the Internet, or make any unfortunate national headlines (thankfully), the entire experience felt worthwhile knowing that people appreciated my effort – even if it got off to an unexpected beginning.
Grace is a program assistant with the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism.