The life of the party planned for the vice-presidential debate Oct. 11 at Centre College will be the nation’s largest organization representing retirees.
AARP, a nonprofit group with more than 37 million members over age 50, announced Thursday in a joint press conference it will be the prime sponsor of the free Vice-Presidential Debate Festival to be held on the lawn between Old Centre and the Campus Center the day of the debate. The group will bring a bus with interactive exhibits and will moderate a series of “intergenerational conversations” on Medicare and Social Security.
The debate festival, a concept Centre is credited with popularizing, will include the Marshall Tucker Band, Kentucky singer-songwriter Ben Sollee, country-pop duo Aly’An featuring Centre alumna Alyson Burke, The Kentucky Ensemble and the Danville Children’s Choir.
Both AARP and college officials declined to give a dollar value for the agreement, but the group’s national engagements director, Pete Jeffries, said the “robust sponsorship” includes putting up the stage and screen for the festival.
The group has been on the road doing similar education drives since the Iowa Straw Poll last year and also will have a presence at the other debate sites.
Richard Trollinger, Centre’s vice president for college relations, said sponsors for the debate were required to commit $100,000. He indicated AARP comfortably exceeded that threshold.
During his remarks, Centre President John Roush painted a mental picture of the thousands who would dot the bustling lawn during the festival “playing their part in the American experience and the electoral process.”
“We will have a festival out here that will not disappoint,” Roush said. “It will be a spectacular time for all the men and women and their children who come. And, more importantly, it will make a statement about what needs to be happening in America, and that is for people to care about the men and women they elect to office and hold them accountable.”
One of the most powerful state and federal government lobbies, AARP has drawn fire from conservatives because of its support for the Affordable Care Act, what has derisively or lovingly been dubbed Obamacare depending on whom you ask.
Kentucky AARP President James Kimbrough defended the group’s record in answering a reporter’s question about perception AARP does the bidding of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party.
“We’ve been accused of being in the pockets of the Republican party during the Bush administration, when we strongly supported Medicare Part D, and we were attacked heavily by Democrats for that,” Kimbrough said. “Now that we supported the ACA — Affordable Care Act — we’ve been attacked for being in the pockets of the Democrats. What we’re in the pockets of is the membership.”
Following the press conference, Jeffries maintained that the group’s non-partisan stance is genuine.
Jeffries said AARP’s voter guides were intended only to educate voters with reliable information culled from the candidates’ own words and official policy statements.
The voter information guides include side-by-side comparisons of the AARP’s principles with President Barrack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s stated positions.
“We hit if off with Richard (Trollinger) immediately, because we had a shared goal of trying to raise the level of discourse,” Jeffries said.
Trollinger said Centre saw the chance to start a conversation about what will be important issues to the campaign and the debate, set against the backdrop of a town recognized recently as an ideal place to retire.
He began talks with state AARP officials soon after the college found out it would get to host the debate.
Trollinger said it became clear there could be a chance to emphasize what’s likely to be one of the most important domestic issues the candidates debate, but also to show students how an issue becomes part of the national discussion.
Clarence Wyatt, Centre history professor and debate steering committee member, said students will be able to see a subject come to life.
“There are things that happen in the classroom and discussions about history, or sociology, or any number of subjects, that become real out here for students,” Wyatt said, referencing the AARP campaign.