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Divestment, sanctuary campus discussed at USG candidate forum; only three of four candidates invited

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Undergraduate Student Government candidates and representatives answer questions Thursday night at a town-hall event hosted by the College Democrats. From left to right: Seph Brown, Sush Polavarapu, Lauren Todd, Stephen Post, Mary Honaker, Carla Gracia. Credit: Matt Dorsey | Lantern Reporter

A heavy downpour may have limited the crowd, but Undergraduate Student Government presidential candidates brought plenty to talk about at a town-hall style Q-and-A session hosted by the College Democrats in Lazenby Hall on Thursday night.

Two pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates (as well as representatives for a third pair) fielded questions centering on divestment, protection of undocumented students and college affordability issues. The fourth pair of running mates, Reese and Reagan Brooks, were not invited.

In attendance was presidential candidate Mary Honaker, a third-year in international studies, with her running mate Carla Gracia, a second-year in political science, and presidential candidate Stephen Post, third-year in economics, with his running mate Lauren Todd, a fifth-year in English. Candidates Andrew Jackson, a third-year in Spanish and political science, and Sophie Chang, a third-year in environment, economy, development and sustainability did not attend the event but sent Sush Polavarapu, a third-year in economics, and USG Senate candidate Seph Brown, a first-year in political science.

Jake Vasilj, a third-year in political science and president of the College Democrats, told The Lantern he did not reach out to the Brooks brothers due to their ties to Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit organization.

“They don’t represent Democratic values,” he said of the brothers, although at least one presidential candidate invited has previously interned at a Republican congressional office.

“(Honaker) has made efforts to reach out to the Democratic community with her staff and vice president (who is a Democrat),” Vasilj said. “It’s not a Democrat-Republican issue, it’s a Turning Point issue.”

Connor Roach, campaign finance director for the Brooks brothers and a student in finance, declined comment.

The only contentious exchange of the night came when the topic of divestment came up. Broadly, divestment is the act of removing an investment from companies that one finds problematic. Specifically on the USG ballot this year is an initiative calling for divestment of OSU’s financial ties from two companies connected to private prisons in the U.S. and three companies whose products are used by the Israeli Defense Forces in the occupied Palestinian territories. The topic of divestment regarding the occupied Palestinian territories has become highly politicized and come up at several universities nationwide.

Leila Elaqad, a fourth-year in sociology and an organizer for OSU Divest — one of the student organizations backing the ballot issue along with the OSU Coalition for Black Liberation — directly asked Honaker and Gracia, who oppose divestment, if they would support it if Issue One, the ballot initiative for divestment, were to pass.

“If that’s how students vote, that’s fine,” Honaker said. “That’s their choice, and we will work to make sure that student needs are met and that millions of dollars of internships and scholarships don’t leave this university.”

Issue One is nonbinding in regards to university finances, but if passed, calls upon USG to ask the university to divest from G4S, Caterpillar, CoreCivic, The GEO Group, and Hewlett Packard “until they are no longer engaged in the violation of human rights and other practices deemed unethical by the Buckeye community.”

Elaqad followed up with a related question, asking if Honaker’s winter break trip to Israel, paid for by the pro-Israel David Project, represented a conflict of interest.

Her position has been the same her whole life, she said, and was not influenced by the David Project’s funding of her trip.

“It was actually in Israel that a lot of my feelings for the Palestinian community grew,” Honaker said. “It really solidified in my mind that while (my ticket is) pro-Israel, that doesn’t mean we are anti-Palestine. We cannot be anti an entire group of people. We are for a two-state solution.”

Other campaigns were not asked about divestment at the townhall and The Lantern has reached out to them for comment.

The issue of making Ohio State a so-called “sanctuary campus,” in an effort to protect undocumented students from federal immigration enforcement, was favored by all candidates.

As president Donald Trump has beefed up the enforcement of deportations for undocumented immigrants, University President Michael Drake recently issued a statement saying OSU would protect students’ immigration status, unless required by law to turn it over.

“We are committed to protecting the information of all of our students, regardless of immigration status,” the statement read. “The university’s established and consistently applied policies hold that we do not release personal data to third parties except as required by law. We admit students without regard to race, religion, national origin or immigration status, and undocumented students are entitled to all of the rights and privileges of other students at Ohio State.”

Previous efforts to declare OSU a sanctuary campus have circulated via a petition, although it’s not clear just how much of the issue lays with OSU or can be superseded by the federal government.

Polavarapu said though Jackson and Chang did not have the sanctuary campus issue listed in their policy statement, they do favor the policy.

“It’s something (they) really care about,” he said.

Gracia shared a similar view.

“We do believe that being a sanctuary (campus) is a wonderful idea,” Gracia said, acknowledging that her and Honaker’s campaign had not listed it either.

When asked if each campaign were only able to accomplish one thing what it would be, the answers varied.

Polavarapu said affordability, diversity and sustainability were all important to Jackson and Chang.

“We have a lot of buildings on campus, and moving them toward more sustainable cleaning materials is something we want to work on,” he said.

He then said the university should move to more sustainable dining and increase its use of local food sources.

Post answered that affordability would be the one issue his campaign would like to tackle.

“Part of the affordability aspect is also the transparency of affordability. So, making sure we know where students’ money is going,” he said. “Specifically involving, that I can think of, the international fee. That’s been increasing as well at a very high rate. So there’s a lot of shroud behind that, as to what the international fee is used for, and as to what resources the international students are actually getting out of that fee.”

Honaker championed inclusion in her answer to the question.

“I think for us, it would definitely be making it so that all students feel like their voices can be heard,” she said. “Whether you are an undocumented student, or maybe you hold an opinion that’s a minority opinion, or anything like that, that you feel that there is a resource and a place for you to go on this campus.”

Correction, 2/24: An earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed a quote from Stephen Post as having made a claim contradicting his campaign’s stance on Ohio State becoming a “sanctuary campus.” The quote has since been rescinded.

Nick Roll contributed to this article.

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