VIRGINIA GENERAL ASSEMBLY
A Lesson in Government From Behind the Scenes
Monday, February 19, 2007
RICHMOND -- Just before noon one recent day, a group of middle school students rushed into the building where Virginia's General Assembly meets. They had one question on their minds.
"Does anyone know the soup of the day?" one boy yelled.
Thomas Cohen, 13, ran down the steps to Chicken's, a tiny basement restaurant. He checked the menu and scrawled "Chicken Gumbo" and "Beef Noodle" on a notepad he'd pulled from the pocket of his navy blue blazer.
Thomas, a seventh-grader at Fairfax County's Frost Middle School, is one of 72 middle school students from across the Old Dominion who are spending seven weeks here in the state capital fetching lunch, copying documents and stuffing envelopes for lawmakers. Between deliveries of soup and stationery, they're also getting an up-close look at democracy. The capital becomes their classroom, with lessons in state government more vivid than any they get in school.
"The delegates don't get as passionate as that movie 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' but they get pretty passionate," Thomas said as he straightened one of several new ties he got for the job. "They can argue but still be friends."
For many years, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress have recruited students to run errands for lawmakers while they are in session. Virginia's page program has been around since at least the mid-1800s. Officials used to rely on the young helpers to make sure everyone had copies of proposed laws. Laptops make that task easier nowadays, but there are still surveys to be sorted and members who forget their BlackBerrys or eyeglasses.
"They are the unsung heroes of the General Assembly," said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), who has been helped more than once by a page who ferried his laptop while he was stuck in a committee meeting. "They do a lot of the work that makes it run."
House of Delegates pages, such as Thomas, are appointed by the speaker of the House. The students, who submit an application, must have good grades, school permission and a letter of recommendation from a local delegate. The state Senate also has a page program.
Wearing crisp blazers with brass buttons, House pages stand sentry at the chamber double doors when lawmakers are in session, opening and closing them each time someone enters or leaves. They still pull hard copies of bills upon request. But they consider keeping lawmakers fed their most important duty.
They say Del. Katherine B. Waddell (I-Richmond) likes to start her day with two diet Pepsis -- bottles, not cans -- and a cup of ice. Del. Jeion A. Ward (D-Hampton) earned a place in page lore this year by ordering a "hamburger, extra sloppy." And many afternoons Del. John S. "Jack" Reid (R-Henrico) enjoys a milkshake. He prefers peach or vanilla.
Tanner Glenn, 15, one of two head pages allowed to return for a second year to help others learn the ropes, inspects all trays before food is delivered to the floor to ensure that each has the appropriate plastic utensils and that no soda has sloshed out of a cup. He keeps a stash of spoons, forks, napkins and Sweet'n Low packets in a desk outside the chamber. Younger pages go to him with the tough questions: "Tanner, do you put the straw in the drink or next to the drink?"
On Thursday afternoon, Thomas, an honor student from Fairfax who's set on becoming president, ran to the basement to buy a small chocolate pie for Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta). "Do you eat pie with a fork or a spoon?" he wondered aloud, finally deciding on one of each.