A half hour into the gubernatorial debate held on October 10, pitting Democratic candidate Phil Murphy against Republican candidate Kim Guadagno, my moment finally arrived. I had been invited to pose a question to the candidates, and my anticipation had been building—not for a matter of hours but for weeks. Waiting my turn, I had had plenty of time to be besieged by the usual stuff. What if my tie is messed up? How does my hair look? Are my lips chapped? I just wanted to look good for the people watching on television at home.

Then, under the dramatic stage lights of the majestic Prudential Hall within the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, I heard the voice of moderator Jim Gardner of ABC News in Philadelphia, who was co-moderating the debate with Toni Yates of ABC News in New York, summon my name. “Our next question comes from a Rutgers University student. His name is Chinedu Onyemaobi, and he has a question for Ms. Guadagno.”

“As a student graduating in May,” I began, speaking into the microphone positioned stage right, “many of my fellow students are concerned about employment opportunities. This state has a history of students leaving New Jersey …”

Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Kim Guadagno


Rutgers was one of several sponsors of the first gubernatorial debate, featuring Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Kim Guadagno. Jim Gardner and Toni Yates of ABC News served as moderators.

Julio Cortez

“I can’t hear the question.” I looked up to see candidate Guadagno with a confused expression. “Sorry, I don’t want to be rude.” Casting her gaze to the audience behind me, she asked: “Are you having a hard time hearing the question?”

I thought: “There’s no way this is happening right now.” I didn’t know what to do. I looked around to see if anyone would direct me.

“All right, Chinedu,” said Gardner, “why don’t you just walk right up …”

I made my way to the candidates as gentle laughter filled the hall.

“Come a little closer,” said candidate Guadagno as I approached her side. “I’m all right; I don’t bite. There you go. How are you?”

“Just do what you have to do,” said Gardner.

And so I did, speaking in the general direction of the tiny microphone attached to Guadagno’s white jacket. I again asked what the candidates intended to do to keep graduating college students from leaving the state to find better-paying jobs.

As the host of several programs for WRNU, the radio station for Rutgers University–Newark, where I am a senior, I was certainly familiar with the sound of my own voice. Still, it sounded a register lower, perhaps in recognition of this important occasion. The event, one of the debates scheduled before Election Day on November 7, was previewing one of only two gubernatorial elections nationwide. Would they be a bellwether for voter sentiment going into the 2018 midterm congressional elections?

The candidates took their turns replying to my question, which they both complimented me on. In my mind, I gave them a C+ for their answers: I wanted them to expand on how they would make school affordable and help students find better-paying employment. They both talked about cutting taxes.

The one-hour debate was broadcast on television and radio and streamed on social media. Rutgers—one of the event’s several sponsors—held campus watch parties throughout the university for students’ benefit and, during the week leading up to the debate, ran daily stories on Rutgers Today, the university’s news service, enlisting experts throughout Rutgers to comment on the key issues facing New Jersey. The candidates were asked about property-tax relief, the impact of the Trump administration’s proposed tax cuts, funding the state pension system, repairing infrastructure and mass transit, gun violence, voter trust in the candidates, legalization of marijuana, and climate change.

Despite the microphone malfunction as I asked my question, the experience was thrilling. I have always enjoyed the spotlight, and my moment at the gubernatorial debate was a great follow-up to my summer experience serving as a Media Fellow at WBGO/Newark Public Radio, the National Public Radio affiliate that’s considered the best in jazz radio. There, I had really honed my journalism chops and further developed my on-air skills, coupled with writing and producing news features.

I had made the most of this opportunity, something heavily emphasized at Rutgers–Newark’s Honors Living-Learning Community, which I am part of and where half the students come from Newark and two-thirds from greater Newark. The curriculum champions the theme of “Local Citizenship in a Global World”; indeed, New Jersey looks a lot like the world today, a multicultural tapestry of humanity.

What the next governor does could serve as an example of how other governors and politicians nationwide can find answers to complicated questions. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to ask one of them, even if I had to ask it twice. •