WATERVILLE, Maine — While most high school juniors enjoy the beginning of summer vacation and flaunt their newfound “senior” status, there are a few hundred focused on something else entirely: politics and government.
At Thomas College in Waterville, 188 male juniors aren’t just learning about government. For the 64th consecutive year of the Boys State program, they are being a government.
In Maine, government moves slowly with the election of selectmen, sheriffs, representatives, senators and the governor. And then there’s that joke about how legislation is one of two things you never want to see made (the other is sausage).
At Boys State all of that and more happens in less than five days (except the sausage). On Tuesday afternoon, ideological platforms had been developed for the “Nationalist” and “Federalist” parties, local elections were over and two candidates for governor sparred in a debate moderated by Ray Richardson, a well-known conservative radio host in Maine. Coming up: town meetings, caucuses and legislative debate of dozens of bills. Life in the state of “Dirigo,” as it is called at Boys State, is busy.
Trey Stewart of Presque Isle said he is definitely in the minority at his school when it comes to having an interest in politics, but he insists he’s a very vocal minority.
“Everyone in my school knows I’m big into politics and that I’m superconservative,” he said. “I’ve been waiting to come to Boys State for a while. I aspire to be a lawyer and probably a politician.”
Stewart said he also has participated in another mock government program in Maine called Youth In Government. He said the difference is that Youth In Government focuses on government and Boys State mixes in politics. With politics comes party pride, which was evident Tuesday at the gubernatorial debate in Thomas College’s Ayotte Auditorium.
The conservative Nationalists sat on the right and the more liberal Federalists on the right. As their candidates, Shane O’Connell, N-Winslow, and Even Eklund, F-Falmouth, exchanged barbs on stage, the split-down-the-middle audience either applauded or sat on their hands.
Richardson asked questions on a range of topics, not unlike the ones real gubernatorial candidates face in actual debates: Abortion. Tax rates. Jobs. Obamacare.
Though it was all a charade, Eklund and O’Connell’s answers were steeped in real-world details.
“I think we should implement a drug test to ensure that welfare money isn’t being used to buy drugs,” said O’Connell in response to a question from Richardson that was framed around an initiative in Gov. Paul LePage’s newly formed biennial budget bill.
Eklund responded by arguing for a system that preserves civil rights.
“Some drug users are not on welfare and not all welfare recipients are drug users,” he said. “But I think we can find compromise on a system.”
Jim Johnson, deputy director of the program, said part of its success is the long-term commitment of several people. Including his own 24 years, he said a core group of six people have a combined 183 years of experience running Boys State.
Though the program remains popular, Johnson said the program’s numbers in both Maine and across the nation are in decline. He said he suspects that is a result of declining ranks in the American Legion, which chooses most of the participants and in most cases pays their way. Nationwide, Boys State has gone from 26,000 delegates in 1996 to 19,000 now, but the program is too valuable to ever go away, he said, adding that the program’s alumni include Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan, John Baldacci, Angus King, Tom Brokaw and George Mitchell.
“This is not just about becoming a politician someday,” he said. “We’re teaching leadership and how to reach compromise.”
With bills to consider that range from “An act to abolish political parties in Maine” to “An Act to investigate why dumb songs get stuck in my head,” they have their work cut out for them.