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Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence greet each other at the start of the vice presidential debate. (Photo by Michael Kropf/Longwood University)
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Kaine and Pence found much to disagree about during the debate. (Photo by Michael Kropf/Longwood University)
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Kaine makes a point while Pence waits his turn. (Photo by Michael Kropf/Longwood University)
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Moderator and CBS anchor Elaine Quijano (Photo by Michael Kropf/Longwood University)
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Anne Holton, wife of Democrat Tim Kaine, enters the auditorium (Photo by Michael Kropf/Longwood University)
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The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader and guest of candidate Tim Kaine, poses with student Malik Long. (Photo by Michael Kropf/Longwood University)
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Gov. Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner attend the vice presidential debate (Photo by Michael Kropf/Longwood University)
FARMVILLE — Anne Porter of Chesterfield County got up early Tuesday morning to come up to Farmville and be a volunteer for the vice presidential debate at Longwood University.
Why? “To be a part of history. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Porter says.
Her connection with the university is her daughter-in-law, who teaches in the chemistry department at the university of 5,000 students in rural Southside Virginia.
Cameron Potter, an 18-year-old sophomore from the Richmond area majoring in theater performance at Longwood, was volunteering alongside Porter. They were greeting a long line of visitors and others who were streaming onto the university’s Stubbs mall, the focal point of fun, food and loud music for the debate.
Potter says he wanted to put something special on his résumé, and he thought being involved in the vice presidential debate might give him a boost.
The debate itself, between Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, was a raucous affair as the two men battled on issues ranging from national defense to taxes.
Kaine’s principal line of attack was directed not at Pence but at Donald Trump, saying the Republican presidential nominee was running a campaign based on insults against Mexican-Americans, women and others.
“I can’t believe you’re supporting Donald Trump’s insult-driven campaign,” Kaine told Pence.
Pence, after flubbing the university's name in his opening remarks, said that under President Obama and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, the United States was weaker in the world than it was eight years ago. He also contended that the economy was heading downward and that the only thing that Kaine and Clinton wanted to do was raise taxes.
Most students saw the debate on a large screen in the middle of campus, and hundreds gathered on blankets or sat on the ground to cheer on their favorite candidate.
Only 100 students, chosen by lot, got to see the candidates inside the debate hall, the school's reconfigured gymnasium. Others watched the debate outdoors on a big screen. (Photo by Gary Robertson)
At debate’s end, two students – one a Clinton supporter and one who supports Donald Trump – had far different opinions about how things turned out.
“Both candidates were well-spoken, but I think Kaine did a better job of explaining his positions,” says senior Frida Cruz, a Clinton supporter from Alexandria who has already cast her vote for the Democratic presidential candidate.
Lucy Wallace of Keysville, who plans to vote for Trump in her hometown, had only one conclusion: “Mike Pence did a great job.”
Whatever the outcome of the debate, Longwood students, employees and alumni were bursting with pride over landing the only vice presidential debate during the campaign, bringing their school national attention.
Khristopher Williams, director of basketball operations for Longwood’s men’s basketball team, took a selfie along with wife Carla and young daughter Raegan in front of a banner celebrating the debate.
He says he was as excited as anyone about all the attention Longwood was receiving from hundreds of reporters attending the debate and the major television networks who were broadcasting it.
Will it help recruiting? “We hope so,” Williams says.
Souvenirs for the debate were in plentiful supply, and anyone who came up to the “swag” booth could take two items without charge. Megan Carney, a Longwood employee who was working at the booth, says the most popular choice was a commemorative T-shirt. Pennants, sunglasses and a bobble-head of “Elwood,” the university’s equine mascot, also were quickly claimed.
Heather Lettner-Rust, who teaches rhetoric and professional writing at Longwood, said before the debate that she would be watching to see if the two vice presidential candidates actually listened to each other. What she has seen so far in the presidential campaign didn’t give her a lot of hope.
Despite her misgivings, she brought her son, an 11th grader, and her daughter, a ninth grader, to the campus to be part of the debate celebration. Her son had a definite point of view. He said, “Farmville is finally doing something,” Lettner-Rust shared with a laugh.
Farmville Mayor David Whitus, a Longwood alumnus, has said that candidates of any party would be welcome in the town of about 8,000, which is hub of commerce and business for much of Southside Virginia.
“Everyone on [Town] Council is elected as an independent, and I think that’s what makes us unique. There are no Republicans or Democrats,” Whitus says.
Still, Democrats have carried the day in the past two presidential elections in Prince Edward County, which encompasses Farmville.
Four years ago, Democrat Barack Obama won Prince Edward with 55.5 percent of the vote. Obama also carried the county in his first election as president, taking 54 percent of the votes cast.
Prince Edward County is notable in civil rights history, something Kaine mentioned in his opening remarks. In 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns led a walkout from all-black Moton High School near the Longwood campus because of poor conditions at the school during the era of “separate but equal.”
Her action, now commemorated in a bronze sculpture on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, led to a court case that became a pivotal part of Brown v. Board of Education, which resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision ending segregation in the United States.
From 1959 to 1964, public schools in Prince Edward County were closed as local officials pushed back against desegregation orders issued by the courts. The closing meant black students were denied education, while whites attended a private academy supported by county tax credits, state tuition grants and donations.
In recent years, Longwood’s Board of Visitors has expressed “profound regret” for the university’s actions and lack of moral support for those fighting segregation during that era.
Before the debate, a group of Longwood student volunteers and staff trolled social media for the best posts about the upcoming encounter and then reposted them on Longwood’s website.
Among the early favorite posts: “Keep expecting the cops to detain me for being weird,” from Shelley Bumgardner, and “Feeling totally good about my future with my new sober friends at Longwood University,” from John Berman.
Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, met with students and visitors and walked the campus before her husband’s nationally televised appearance.
Traffic was slow at the voter registration booth that was set up as part of the debate, but Lucas Hobson, a freshman from Charlottesville, says that when he first reported to campus earlier in the year, hordes of students were being registered at big-box stores and elsewhere throughout the area. Hobson says he changed his residency so he could vote on campus when the time comes.
Pamela Ridpath of Colonial Heights, another freshman at the registration booth, says she is going to return home to vote, and so were many of her friends. “We wouldn’t miss it,” Ridpath says.
Signs for “Trump” and “Clinton-Kaine” sprouted up along roads leading into the Longwood campus. Longwood itself took a neutral position, with a sign on U.S. 360 reading, “Welcome Visitors, Good Luck Candidates.”
Students applauded most loudly when Longwood’s name was mentioned before and during the debate.
University President Taylor Reveley IV drew at least as many cheers as either of the vice presidential candidates at the conclusion of brief remarks welcoming the country to the Longwood campus for the debate.
Reveley cited Barbara Johns’ courage in the civil rights movement and Longwood’s long-stated mission to develop citizen leaders. He said the vice presidential debate was “an opportunity our students will cherish always.”
Justin Pope, Reveley’s chief of staff, was emotional when asked if the debate that he, Reveley and others associated with the university had worked so hard to bring to Longwood had been worth it.
“It’s been the greatest day in our professional lives,” Pope said.