The Ticket

High school girls who launched campaign for female debate moderator glad Lehrer went first

Dylan Stableford
The Ticket

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Siegel, Axelrod, Tsemberis (Elissa Siegel)

Three high school girls from New Jersey showed up at the Washington, D.C., offices of the Commission on Presidential Debates in late July, carrying boxes filled with printouts from an online petition, demanding that the commission do something it hadn't done in 20 years: Choose a female moderator for at least one of the three 2012 presidential debates.

There to greet the teenagers--Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis--was office security, who abruptly turned them away. "They're not our biggest fans," Tsemberis told Yahoo News in a recent phone interview after school.

But the trio was undeterred. They had already collected more than 170,000 signatures for their campaign on and had garnered public support from the likes of powerful women such as New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Carole Simpson, the last woman to moderate a presidential debate--the second between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992. The students had even made appearances on CNN and Fox News.

[Related: Jim Lehrer's debate moderation mauled by critics, Mitt Romney]

In August, the commission selected not one but two women to moderate the debates: ABC News' Martha Raddatz will officiate Thursday's vice presidential debate, and CNN's Candy Crowley will mediate the second presidential debate of 2012 on Oct. 16.

"I think they got the message," Siegel said.

When the 16-year-olds returned for their junior year at Montclair High in September, they received a standing ovation from teachers and classmates on the first day of school.

Now they're watching the debates with a keen interest, feeling they played at least a small part in political history. "There's no reason why there shouldn't have been a woman on stage in 20 years," Tsemberis said. "It's completely ridiculous. I want my gender represented."

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The girls leave the offices of the Commission on Presidential Debates in Washington, D.C., July 31, 2012. (Elissa …

So what did the girls think of the first debate moderator?

"Lehrer couldn't get in control," Axelrod (no relation to Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod) said. "It really shows you how difficult a job it is to be a moderator--for a man or a woman."

"I'm glad Candy Crowley didn't moderate the first debate, in a way," she said. "Because if that happened and Romney bullied her, people would've been like, 'See, she can't control him just because she's a woman.'"

Would Romney have treated a woman differently?

"It's possible," Tsemberis said. "Some men feel they need to treat women with a certain bit of carefulness and protection for whatever reason."

[Related: High school students launch petition for female moderator at 2012 presidential debates]

Tsemberis doesn't think the same tact Romney took with Lehrer would have worked with, say, Crowley. "It would've reflected horribly on him, especially with his [poor] polling with women," she said. "But if she asked something that got him riled up, he probably would've bullied anyone."

Siegel didn't want to offer a grade for Lehrer's performance, since she was only 12 during the last debate cycle, her only reference for comparison. Still, she understands Lehrer's reluctance to step in. "It's hard to ask the most powerful man in the United States to stop talking," she said.

Crowley and Raddatz have not contacted the girls since being named moderators, but Tsemberis doesn't mind. "If Candy Crowley said, 'Thank you,' people might see that as her acknowledging that she was chosen because she's a woman and not because she's qualified, which she completely is."

All three students said they were not necessarily interested in politics before this experience, but it has caused them to take another look.

"It definitely sparked an interest for me," Siegel said. "I was not interested in the debates before, but it's opened my eyes to the point where I now am thinking about going into government or social advocacy."

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