Understanding political procedure
The Boys State program was established in 1935, the brainchild of Hayes Kennedy and Harold Card of the American Legion in Illinois. The founders were troubled about what young people might hear at political indoctrination camps that were being held around the country.
The first Boys State was held on the Illinois state fairgrounds in June of 1937. The program began to spread across the country, and soon the American Legion Auxiliary was making a similar program available to girls. The first Girls State was held a year later. The programs are held in every state with the exception of Hawaii, usually on college campuses.
In June, Jamestown resident Marc Laflamme, who just completed his junior year at the Prout School in Wakefield, attended Boys State. The weeklong Rhode Island program – open to students who have completed their third year of high school – is held on the campus of Roger Williams University. The girls program takes place at the same time.
Laflamme said he first heard about the program at school in the fall. He served on the Prout student council at Prout with a friend who attended Boys State last year. His buddy convinced him he should go.
During the winter, Laflamme worked on an application and submitted it in March. A month later he was accepted into the program. He was then contacted by the Jamestown chapter of the American Legion and was told the organization was interested in sponsoring him.
According to retired Marine Col. David Fuquea, an instructor at the Naval War College and a member of the local American Legion, the Boys State program has been more or less dormant in Jamestown in recent years. He hopes the program will be fully revived, and in order to create more interest, the American Legion is offering scholarships that pay for all of the costs associated with the program.
Fuquea himself participated in the program in 1976 when it was held at the Navy base in Newport. One of the mentors who attended that year was former U.S. Sen. John Chafee.
“He came in and talked to us about the legislative process,” Fuquea said. “He gave us some insight into the hot-issue topics of the time.”
Other notable attendees range from presidents (Bill Clinton) to astronauts (Neil Armstrong) to rock stars (Jon Bon Jovi), along with other well-known figures like broadcast journalist Jane Pauley, NBA legend Michael Jordan and Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid.
According to Laflamme, nearly 40 boys – and an equivalent number of girls – attended this year. The students were housed in dorms on campus. Initially they are divided into two parties – the Nationalists and the Federalists – and each student was given the title of senator for the week.
They were taught the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure. That led to instruction on how bills were crafted, proposed, debated, amended and voted on. There were also speakers from the military and state government. According to Laflamme, party labels began to fall away quickly.
Nights were spent in the dorms discussing and writing proposed legislation. Laflamme wrote several bills, one of which called for taking 20 percent of corporate taxes and returning the money to small businesses across the state. That bill was among the five bills that were passed by the group.
Toward the end of the week, the students took a trip to the State House where they met Gov. Lincoln Chafee and other elected officials. The bills the students passed at RWU were presented in the Senate chamber. All of the passed bills were sent to the governor’s desk to complete the process.
“I was told that last year the state government took language from the Boys State bills,” Laflamme said.
Those bills were actually passed by the General Assembly.
Although the days were long, it wasn’t all work for the students. There was a gym session every afternoon, and lengthy meal periods. As for the girls on campus, Laflamme said he was glad the sessions became coed after a couple of days – the genders were separated in the beginning – because it allowed the students to see what might happen to legislation in a more diverse setting.
“We had a lot of fun when it was just the boys, but when we had the girls there, it forced us to take another perspective,” he said. “It got a lot more serious when we had mixed sessions. It was also a lot more productive. People tended not to take sides based on gender.”
Laflamme said at the beginning of the sessions the group mimicked the national political scene: some of the students were clearly more conservative, and others more liberal. However, those lines began to blur as the week went on. By the end, while there were still differences among the students, there were no strict party lines. The group became more bipartisan.
Laflamme felt Boys State was a valuable experience for him. He said it’s hard to be a responsible citizen when you’re ignorant to how the government works.
Laflamme will graduate from Prout in 2014 and hopes to have a career in physics.
Students entering their junior year in high school with an interest in attending the program can contact Fuquea at 841-2193. Both boys and girls are welcome.
“If a student makes the Legion aware of their interest at the state or local level,” Fuquea said, “the Legion will do everything we can to get the student there.”