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High school debate spurs council candidate dust up

A Claremont High School candidate debate last week brought city issues to the ears of the city’s young people, but the road leading up to it was not without controversy.

Dave Chamberlain, who teaches speech and debate at CHS, was looking for a way to get kids more involved in local politics, so his students came up with the idea of hosting a debate.

One of the students involved in the planning was Zayn Aga, a CHS senior. Zayn, as it turns out, is also a volunteer with Zach Courser’s campaign for city council. 

At least one candidate has cried foul over Zayn’s involvement. Councilmember Corey Calaycay reached out to Mr. Chamberlain by email on February 17—and cc’d CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser, CHS principal Brett O’Conner and the COURIER—regarding an article in The Student Life, Pomona College’s student newspaper, noting that the paper had listed Zayn as a “campaign manager” for Mr. Courser.

Citing the article, Mr. Calaycay questioned the impartiality of the forum.

“The fact that one of Mr. Courser’s campaign staff is involved in organizing this event brings into serious question the integrity of this debate,” Mr. Calaycay wrote in the email.

Mr. Calaycay also took issue with the timeline of the invitation, which was sent out on February 14, just one week ahead of the February 22 event.

“Should the high school wish to sponsor a candidates’ forum in the future,” Mr. Calaycay wrote, “it is only fair to all candidates that it be scheduled well in advance and not organized, even in part, by individuals who are directly involved in another candidate’s campaign.”

Mr. Calaycay said he found the The Student Life article through his Google alerts and noted that Zayn wasn’t forthright in mentioning his involvement with Mr. Courser’s campaign when he invited the candidates.

“He just listed himself as captain of the debate team at Claremont High and didn’t mention anything about being involved with Zach’s campaign,” he said. “And that is of concern.”

When reached by phone, Mr. Courser further explained Zayn’s role in his campaign.

Zayn—who is 17 and cannot vote in Tuesday’s election—was brought on to Mr. Courser’s campaign through a colleague, Eric Helland, an economics fellow at CMC. Mr. Helland’s daughter Sophia, a CMC freshman and Zayn’s girlfriend, asked her dad if he could reach out to Mr. Courser about possibly allowing Zayn to gain some political experience. Mr. Courser said he welcomed the teen on board.

“Getting more young people involved has been a goal of mine as an educator and as a resident who sees too few of them interested in politics,” Mr. Courser related. “If the incumbents want to twist that into conspiracy, I really don’t know what to say.”

Mr. Calaycay felt Mr. Courser’s explanation for Zayn’s involvement was “too coincidental.”

“The [Student Life] article specifically said ‘campaign manager’ and it listed both their names,” he said. “To me, it almost comes across as defensive then trying to change your story after the fact, which again adds more questions to the whole thing.”

Mr. Courser said he is “disgusted” by the whole situation.

“He specifically singled out Zayn and tried to get his teacher in trouble by copying the principal, the superintendent and the COURIER to get them in hot water over something that is simply untrue,” Mr. Courser said.

Mr. Chamberlain maintains he was well aware of Zayn’s association with Mr. Courser’s campaign, and took the necessary steps to limit Zayn’s involvement in certain aspects of the planning, like excluding him from formulating questions or conducting surveys of the CHS seniors to see what issues were important to them.

“One or two students were involved in drafting the questions, and then we shared those with the group for feedback,” he said. “That’s sort of the process we incorporated.”

While Zayn was involved in analyzing the feedback from the students, his main role was to reach out to the candidates and handle RSVP requests, Mr. Chamberlain said. Because Zayn already had the candidates’ contact information, Mr. Chamberlain felt it “seemed like a logical thing to do.”

The speech and debate teacher noted that he was dismayed by the councilman’s reaction to the forum, calling Mr. Calaycay’s concerns “absolutely unfounded.”

“To attempt to impugn the integrity of the event; I’m not sure why he should do that,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “Frankly, I’m shocked at the response—the fact that he went to the press, the fact he went and spoke to my two bosses, Brett O’Connor and Jim Elsasser, to share concerns. It seemed like an attempt in intimidating us to not host the event. That’s kind of shocking to me.”

Zayn received an email Thursday from Marlena Monroe, calling Mr. Courser’s record into question. When reached by phone, candidate Murray Monroe confirmed the email was actually from him, sent from his wife’s account.

“Did you do any research on your candidate?” Mr. Monroe asked the teen. “CEI? Running as a Republican in Virginia? Working for Denny?”

Mr. Monroe said he was trying to get Zayn to “do a little more research. That’s all I’m asking.”

Mr. Monroe’s query to Zayn relates to a 2005 academic paper written by Mr. Courser titled “Wal-Mart and the Politics of American Retail,” which was published on the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) website. CEI is a conservative think tank for which a former colleague of Mr. Courser worked. Mr. Courser told the COURIER that he has never been involved with CEI in any official capacity, other than the posted article.

In 1999, just after graduating from Claremont McKenna College, Mr. Courser worked as an administrative tech for former House speaker Dennis Hastert’s office for nine months, before returning home to Washington State—not Virginia—to run for state assembly as a Republican.

After losing his bid for assembly, Mr. Courser, who had delayed acceptance to graduate school at the University of Virginia, began his studies, earning his PhD in government in 2008. He accepeted several teaching positions, including CMC, Boston College and Washington and Lee University, as well as Sciences Po Lyon in France and working as a senior program director and fellow for the Legatum Institute in London. He returned to Claremont in 2014 after accepting the position of research director of the Dreier Roundtable.

CHS Principal Brett O’Connor responded to Mr. Calaycay’s concerns, noting that there wasn’t any conflict involved in the high school forum.

“Though Zayn is listed as one of Mr. Courser’s campaign managers, I am certain there is nothing ‘sinister’ occurring in his organization of this event,” he wrote.

Mr. Calaycay responded that it was still open to the public and not just limited to students.

“My feeling is that Mr. Aga [Zayn] should have been forthright about his role with Mr. Courser’s campaign from the get go,” Mr. Calaycay said. “Or Zach, even if he did not know that Zayn was doing this, he got the same invitation we did. If I had seen one of my campaign staff was involved, I would feel obligated to immediately notify the candidates.”

In the end, only Mr. Courser, Murray Monroe and Michael Keenan attended. Mr. Calaycay and incumbent Larry Schroeder both had other campaign commitments that evening. Abraham Prattella called the day of the event to say he couldn’t make it, and Anthony Grynchal reportedly never responded to the invitation, according to Mr. Chamberlain.

Mr. Courser addressed the incumbent candidates’ absences at the debate.

“I think this is a real missed opportunity for them to talk about their record and to talk about the issues that are important to Claremont,” he told the crowd.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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