The candidates made their way off the stage in Detroit to greet the gaggle of reporters just after 10 p.m. Wednesday. Jeffery snaked his way to the front of the line so he could see, and he looked for Marianne Williamson, the New Age guru and unofficial “Orb Queen” of the 2020 campaign. Earlier, he had tried to ask the author what pet she would bring to the White House but he froze and couldn’t, and she promised to come back. Now, Jeffery was ready.
“Hi!” Williamson said, remembering him. “We met earlier today.”
Jeffery didn’t hesitate. “So do you have a pet?” he asked.
“I had a cat,” she said, and then, morosely, “and the cat died.”
What happened next has amazed Jeffery. His first-ever interview question was heard around the world in a viral 14-second video clip that Jeffery insists was really not that interesting. Headlines reported: “Williamson delivers grim message to child reporter,” describing him as “speechless” or possibly traumatized. But everyone seemed to get it wrong, Jeffery said. By the end of the night, as he watched the moment blow up, he had already learned his first lesson: “They exaggerated it on the Internet,” he told The Washington Post.
Jeffery, the son of a single mom from Guatemala, said he traveled from Culver City, Calif., to Detroit to ask the candidates the kinds of questions he didn’t think the mainstream media was asking enough: about animals and their habitats. Dressed in his best suit and bow tie, he scored a seat in the press room courtesy of KidScoop Media, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that grants kid journalists access to some of the most high-profile events at venues ranging from the White House to NASA to red carpets in Hollywood. At the debate, he met candidates including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
After his Marianne moment, he became so popular that he was invited onto a skit on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.” By the second night of debates, the campaigns all knew his name, granting him immediate access to the presidential candidates.
“Hi, bud,” the communications director for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said to Jeffery, immediately recognizing him. “Did you talk to Marianne Williamson yesterday? You did a really good job. And are you learning how to become a reporter? Is that what you want to be when you grow up?”
“I’m testing it out,” Jeffery said.
“Wow. You’re getting ahead of the game, aren’t you,” she responded, before bringing him to the senator.
Preparing for his trip, Jeffery had practiced many questions, ranging from queries on forest protection to ocean conservation. But, pressed for time, Jeffery typically just stuck to the one that was the most fun: the candidates’ preferred White House pets. President Trump does not have a pet. Jeffery was hoping the Democrats would commit to changing this, and all of them did.
“I learned a lot while I was there,” he said. “The main thing that I would say is learning more about the candidates and what they feel they should do and how they feel about bringing a pet back to the White House. Most everyone said they would bring a dog or cat. I was thinking about one thing: Maybe for a change, a hamster could be a White House pet.”
KidScoop Media’s founder, Michelle Mayans, said she created the organization in 2008 to get kids out of their shells and explore a journalism career in venues they wouldn’t typically be able to access. “It’s about nurturing curiosity,” she said. “Kids don’t always know what they want. This way, they can sample being a journalist for a day.”
Jeffery was a natural from the start, she said, describing him as an “old soul.” He started out with KidScoop as a foodie, writing reviews about his favorite restaurants. He wrote in one: “I’m sure if Darth Vader had a meal at Pasta Sisters he would have been just a bit nicer.” He got it published in the Culver City News, his local newspaper. Mayans thought he might want to go out for the big leagues.
He started practicing. He penciled the questions in his notebook in large letters so he could see them easily.
For Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): “When you become president, what would be the first thing you would do about our national parks and forests? As a Boy Scout, I am concerned."
For Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a veteran: “Have you ever met a military dog?”
For anyone: “When you become president, what is your plan to stop the glaciers from melting?”
“Needless to say, I’m so proud of him and that he was actually able to stay that long and be focused,” said Jeffery’s mom, Londy Hernandez. “It was really surreal for me.”
An immigrant who lived in Canada before coming to the United States, Hernandez said her son has helped her with her own writing, since English is her second language. He recently finished reading “Moby Dick” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” she said. “This summer, he’s actually writing a book,” a sci-fi chapter book, she said.
Jeffery said he plans to continue covering the candidates this summer should another opportunity arise.
He particularly would like to see Williamson again, the nicest candidate in his opinion, because he felt like he should have said something about her dead cat. It was his only regret, he said.
“I wish I would have told her to maybe rescue a cat from a rescue center or a shelter for animals,” he said.
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