Debate Worker

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ole Miss debate volunteer Douglas Williams (left) chats up U.S. Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, when the pair sat down at a table to enjoy a meal of Rendezvous ribs, beef brisket and baked beans that had been prepared for the throng of media and politicians. Other sightings included CBS anchor Katie Couric. The Panolian photo by Billy Davis

Batesville resident works debate

By Tobie Baker

OXFORD – The year’s first presidential debate brought countless opportunities for learning and life-changing experiences to University of Mississippi students, but not all the beneficiaries were students.

Some of the personnel working the event got in on the act, too.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

In weeks leading up to the presidential debate, Ashley Walker was working two part-time jobs, including one as security officer assigned to check credentials outside the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. It was there that the 23-year-old single mother from Batesville got some surprising news.

“The Secret Service wanted one of us to work with them to credential the media,” Walker explained. “I guess I was the lucky one.”

Walker assisted the Secret Service working with them and the Commission on Presidential Debates throughout the week.

While she sometimes had to deal with impatient people who looked down on her, Walker said the opportunity was rewarding and exciting.

“It made me feel important for a little bit,” she said. “I got to meet hundreds of people from across the world. It was fun.”

One of her most intriguing experiences was being interviewed by Maina Kiai, the former chairman of the Kenyan Commission on Human Rights, who is following Barack Obama on the campaign trail as a correspondent for the Nairobi Star and KISS-FM.

“He was wearing his traditional garb, spoke with a British accent and had the most beautiful teeth,” Walker recalled. “He was very educated, and he valued my opinion.

“He told me he was friends with Barack, and that was just fascinating.”

Kiai and Obama attended Harvard Law School together in the late 1980s.

The journalist asked Walker a variety of questions, ranging from her thoughts on how Mississippi has progressed since the Civil Rights era to her opinions on both presidential candidates.

“I just told him that things are better here today,” Walker said.

“Blacks and whites stand side-by-side at the grocery store, go to school together, drink from the same water fountains and no one even blinks. It’s normal, everyday life.”

The granddaughter of the late Mississippi Gov. Cliff Finch, Walker said her working the presidential debate would have pleased her grandfather: “I know he’d be proud of me.”

During Friday night’s debate, moderator Jim Leher asked both Obama and John McCain if America is safer today than it was following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Both candidates agreed that the country is safer, but “there’s a long way to go” yet. Walker said she shares that assessment.

“I guess we are safer,” Walker said. “There’s the airport security checks, but they are definitely right, there’s a lot more that we need to do.”

A former UM graduate student in education, Walker has taken a break from her studies in order to work.

“I will go back and finish school,” Walker said. “Without a doubt.”

(Tobie Baker is a former Batesville resident)