Did girls' petition help Candy Crowley land gig as a debate moderator?

CNN's Candy Crowley was named Monday as a presidential debate moderator, the first woman in that role in 20 years. Three students who campaigned for a woman were 'exuberant, thrilled, excited.'

Courtesy of Edward M. Pio Roda/CNN/AP
This June photo shows CNN anchor and chief political correspondent Candy Crowley. Crowley was named Monday to anchor one of the three nationally-televised presidential debates.

The last time a woman moderated a presidential debate, an Arkansas governor named Clinton was in the running, the US Olympic men’s basketball team featured Michael, Magic, and Bird, the British royals Charles and Diana were splittsville, and Nirvana turned rock-n’-roll grungy.

And Elena Tsemberis, Emma Axelrod, and Sammi Siegel hadn’t even been born yet.

It’s taken 20 years, but thanks in some part to the efforts of the three high school students from Montclair, N.J., a woman will once again host a presidential debate.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that organizes the events, the Commission on Presidential Debates, announced Monday that CNN’s Candy Crowley will anchor one of the three nationally-televised presidential debates, scheduled for Oct. 16.

Based on a comment made by a teacher in their sophomore year, civics class, the three 16-year-olds organized two online petitions through the website Change.org earlier this year. The petitions ultimately drew more than 180,000 signatures.

Ms. Tsemberis says the three friends are “exuberant, thrilled, excited” that their petition, named “It’s Time For a Woman Moderator,” had garnered so much publicity.

“We learned that one or two people or 100,000 people could have an impact,” she says, taking a break from her preseason cross-country running practice. “It’s like a new democracy. We saw it in Egypt. We saw it in India. We’ve seen the power of technology and what it can do to get people to make a change – how to make a difference, how to be involved in our community.”

It’s unclear exactly how much the teenagers’ petition influenced the commission, which made no mention of it in its statement.

A phone message seeking comment from the commission was not immediately returned. The commission consists of 15 members, among them two former presidents and three women, including the executive director.

ABC NewsCarole Simpson was the last woman to moderate a debate, which in 1992 featured Clinton, George H. W. Bush and H. Ross Perot. Gwen Ifill of PBS hosted two vice presidential debates, in 2004 and 2008.

Meanwhile, in that 20-year period, one woman has been on a presidential ticket (Sarah Palin, 2008); one woman nearly led a ticket (Hillary Clinton, 2008); and one woman was third in line to succeed the president (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 2007-2011).

For her part, Crowley also made no mention of the highschoolers’ petition in a statement released by CNN.

“As someone who is in awe and grateful every day to be in a country where freedom of the press, free speech, and free elections are a way of life, I am wowed, amazed, and excited by the opportunity to moderate a 2012 presidential debate,” she said.

Aside from the Oct. 16 debate, there will be two other presidential debates moderated by Jim Lehrer of “PBS NewsHour” and Bob Schieffer of CBS News. Martha Raddatz of ABC News will host the only vice presidential debate scheduled.

Tsemberis says she and her classmates have been buoyed by the outpouring of support their effort received. But she says they’ve also been surprised by some of the negative, sexist remarks that have posted by readers on news websites.

“It’s really important for young women and boys to see women as role models, in position of power,” Tsemberis says. “It’s about getting women to be visible in society, and not being discouraged because they’re being judged by what they look like.”

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