"Good evening from the Bushnell Theater in Hartford, Connecticut."
Those words, spoken by Presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer on Oct. 6, 1996, brought Hartford into living rooms all over America. When President Bill Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole took to the stage that night, it was a moment of unprecedented civic pride for the group of idealistic young volunteers whose efforts began the movement to bring the debate here, and for the countless supporters they gathered along the way.
Hartford attorney Dan Papermaster remembers the initial resistance he and others faced in 1995 when they first formed a bi-partisan group, Hartford Debate '96, to raise the money needed for a presidential debate bid.
"It wasn't simple to ignore the naysayers, but we had to," he recalls. "Then, as things picked up, those same people got on board."
Between March and October 1995, Papermaster and his group pulled in every available resource. A former aide to Sen. Christopher Dodd, Papermaster reached out to all of his political contacts, picking up momentum as the team garnered the support of the mayor's office, congressmen, state senators, and eventually, every governor in New England. The result was a movement in which all six states in the region were pushing for a debate to land in the struggling city.
"We left no stone unturned during the application process," Papermaster says. "The local corporate community was a huge support as well."
By mid-October, with paperwork submitted, the now substantial group of supporters pulled out all the stops for a visit and city tour by Commission on Presidential Debates representative Janet Brown. In January, the commission announced its decision to bring a debate to Hartford.
What was originally slated as a vice-presidential debate between Democrat Al Gore and Republican Jack Kemp, however, was switched to a presidential event due to scheduling changes. Papermaster's team needed to up its game in a hurry.
"People today don't remember that it was originally a vice presidential debate; planning for a presidential debate is tremendously more involved," he says. "We had 3,000 members of the media coming to town for an event that was going to pump millions into the economy."
Papermaster says the combined effort of civic leaders, corporate sponsors, and volunteers was invaluable in shifting with the event's endless details.
"I got a call two days before the debate saying the stage was getting too hot under the lights," he recalls. "One of our sponsors, Carrier Corp., immediately brought in air coolers and solved the problem."
Following its moment in the sun, Papermaster says, Hartford felt the positive effects of the 1996 debate well beyond that evening.
"The benefit was the mindset it created, energizing people to recognize Hartford as a place that can handle large, world class events," he says. "Civic leaders began to say 'Let's make stuff happen.'"
Papermaster points to other community efforts which grew from his group's grass-roots beginnings, such as the Millennium Project at Trinity College in the year 2000. That undertaking, which promoted an inclusive study surrounding issues of the new Millennium, blossomed from the efforts of community leaders who first worked together on Hartford Debate '96.
Looking back on the 1996 debate, however, he credits his own unapologetic inexperience – and that of his counterparts – as the perfect catalyst for creating an historic event for the city.
"Our collective naiveté was an enormous asset," he says. "We responded to everything with 'Why can't we do it? We'll figure it out.'" g