General Assembly pages get lesson in lawmaking
By Blake Belden, Staff Writer
Mar 7, 2014, 15:56
CONTRIBUTED BY DELEGATE S. CHRIS JONES From left to right: Delegate Riley Ingram, John Eliades, Speaker of the House William Howell.
As the Virginia General Assembly adjourns this year’s legislative session on Saturday, more than just a bunch of politicians will be leaving the Capitol Building shaking hands for bills that were passed. There will also be 80 middle school students walking out of the doors having spent the past few months submerged in the lawmaking process fulfilling the duties of being a page.
Aaron Bowen, a freshman at N.B. Clements Jr. High School in Prince George who lives on Fort Lee, said that he is not ready for his experience as a Senate page to end.
“I’m really going to miss it. Everybody I’ve met, and just the whole thing ... I’m really going to miss it,” Bowen said. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
Bladen Finch, the Senate Page Program director, shared his enthusiasm for the program in the face of many like it disappearing around the nation.
“We’re pretty much the last residential page program left in the country. ... A lot of state legislatures have just eliminated it for various reasons,” Finch said. “We have continued to adapt our program, which I think makes it as strong as it is, and we really put a lot of time, as much time as we can, in trying to engage [pages] in various parts of the legislative operation.”
There are two different page programs for the House of Delegates and the Senate, both of which give 13-and 14-year old students a paid opportunity to develop themselves professionally and better grasp the lawmaking procedure by providing day-to-day services for state legislators during one 60-day session of the Virginia General Assembly.
As part of their everyday responsibilities, pages must wake up around six o’clock every morning, five days a week, and walk over to the Capitol Square in downtown Richmond from a hotel a few blocks away.
After creating a daily schedule by 8:15 a.m., pages begin their work, which involves a variety of activities such as scanning papers, taking phone calls and messages, working on a computer, legislative errands or “whatever task they have for us,” all while interacting with members of the legislature, Bowen said.
Legislative pages live in Richmond five nights a week, Sunday night through Friday, and return home each weekend. They must complete school work sent to them from their schools during the General Assembly’s session.
For Bowen, the major transition in lifestyle was an easy task.
“I like adapting. It’s really fun,” he said.
The same was the case for John Eliades, a seventh grader from Carter Woodson Middle School, who also found the transition to go smoothly, finding that the page lifestyle was conducive to a welcome sense of independence.
In fact, Eliades said that his favorite aspect of the program is the amount of freedom he is given to make his own decisions: where to eat, when to do schoolwork, when to go bed, etc.
Eliades, who is a page in the House of Delegates, watched a session of the General Assembly on President’s Day, and had heard about the page program through his father, before he acquired an interest in becoming a page.
Although Eliades admits that he still doesn’t know every detail involved in how a bill finally becomes a law, he said that the program has taught him a great deal about the legislative process, something he knew little about before becoming a page.
Eliades said that this program has driven him towards politics even more than before he started the program, and his sights are not set low.
“I would like to be the president of the United States someday,” Eliades said.
As far as short-term plans, Eliades is looking to opportunities such as the head page position and internships with politicians as a way to embed himself in the political field, and then maybe to becoming a member of the Hopewell City Council to serve the community he has lived in all of his life until now.
The page programs for the state House of Delegates and Senate are somewhat different in nature, one difference being that Senate pages cannot return the next year, but two pages in the House have a chance to come back as head pages the following year, who assist and supervise the new pages that come in for the program.
As the session draws to a close, Eliades said the program has improved upon his overall work ethic as well as enhanced his social skills and etiquette.
“My parents have always taught me manners, and they have come in to [play] here,” Eliades said.
Bowen, who is the Senate page for Sen. Henry Marsh III, D-Richmond, decided he wanted to be a page back in November after developing an interest in the legislative process, and wondering what it was like to be a part of it.
Prior to being a Senate page, Bowen said he had thought about the idea of a career in politics, and now that the General Assembly’s session is nearing the end, he would like a political career, but he’s not sure that he is ready “to throw everything into the world of legislating.”
Although he wasn’t set on pursuing a career in politics, Bowen said that being present during floor sessions in the Senate chamber is one of the most positive parts about the program.
“It’s really intriguing to actually listen to the bills that are going on, and who opposes [bills] and who is in favor of the bills,” Bowen said.
Bowen said the program has engraved in him an ethic of always exceeding the bare minimum when completing tasks, in addition to developing a stronger sense of patience.
“You need [patience] with everything,” Bowen said.
Finch said that Bowen has proven to be the model of a successful page during the past few months.
“[He is an] excellent young man. Very polite, very professional. He is the type of page that every program would want to have,” Finch said.
For other students who have the opportunity to be a page, Bowen adamantly says “take it.”
“This is amazing. You will learn so much [more] in this 7-9 weeks than you will learn in school. ... It’s one thing to learn about the legislature in class, [and another] to actually learn about it firsthand when you’re involved in it,” Bowen said.
Eliades shared Bowen’s sentiment.
“Do it. It’s an experience of a lifetime,” Eliades said, emphasizing that he will be sad when it is over.
Eliades, who now knows the Capitol “from top to bottom,” said he has been keeping a journal to document his thrilling experience as a page, including several opportunities to tour buildings around the Capitol such as the Federal Reserve, the Veterans Museum and the John Marshall House.
Both programs have a mock draft, where the legislators from both the House and the Senate reverse roles with the pages for a few hours of one day, who then get to experience what it is like to draft bills and vote on them.
The House of Delegates already did their mock draft, during which Eliades said one delegate brought all of the pages milkshakes, and that overall it was a “very good debate” in which the pages voted on many bills including some regarding animal rights, civil unions and one where parents who have mentally ill children must keep their guns in a safe.