Many of the record 108 Arlington high-school students who will head to Richmond in March for participation in the 2019 Model General Assembly program got a head start Dec. 7, as they sat down with real-world legislators and picked up suggestions on how to build alliances and win passage of bills in the state capital.
Students from Bishop O’Connell, Wakefield, Washington-Lee and Yorktown high schools, the Arlington Career Center and H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program will head to Richmond after the conclusion of the (actual) General Assembly session early next spring for three days of activity with their counterparts from across the commonwealth.
“Our goal is to be ‘Richmond-ready’ with strong arguments,” said Thomas Dannenfelser, a Bishop O’Connell senior who earlier this year was selected to serve as governor during 2019 Virginia Model General Assembly, an initiative of the YMCA.
Dannenfelser kicked off the training session, held at Westover Baptist Church, expressing delight that so many new participants were part of the mix.
“I’m so excited this year to be introducing you to the process,” he said to the newcomers.
The local brigade of budding lawmakers will be bringing with them 19 pieces of proposed legislation, which they will try to convince fellow students from across the commonwealth to support.
“We’re very excited for another great year,” said Amber Hootman, senior program director for the Arlington YMCA.
The workshop marked the fifth year that the Arlington branch of the YMCA sponsored the pre-session gathering with elected officials, designed to provide the students with real-world feedback and advice.
“It’s great to be here,” said Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th), who was on hand to work with students on evaluating and wordsmithing proposed legislation. He was joined by state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st) and Arlington Police Chief Jay Farr.
This being Arlington, most of the proposed legislation came from a progressive-leaning slant, whether it be gun-control measures or automatic voter registration.
One bill, proposed by Wakefield students, would require schools across the commonwealth to provide students with instruction about self-examinations for cancer.
“It’s a great bill,” said Favola, who suggested students include language directing the Virginia Department of Education to develop a curriculum on breast health.
“They would determine which age group would be appropriate,” Favola said in her feedback.
Another student bill would expand the definition of hate crimes to add sexual orientation and gender identity, which currently are not part of Virginia’s statute. It was a measure Favola was intimately involved with.
“I’ve carried that bill for years. We can’t seem to get the law passed. It goes down on a partisan vote,” she said.
Favola suggested students do what she is trying to do, casting the measure in a light designed to appeal to conservatives.
“I’m trying to attack it from a different angle – it’s a ‘tough-on-crime’ bill,” Favola said. “It could get some bipartisan support.”
In another corner of the room, Sullivan was working with students on legislation to, in certain circumstances, take guns away from those deemed to have mental illness.
Such measures are tough sells, the delegate told students, as the question is where to draw the line between individual and societal rights.
Farr, who also has taken part in the event for several years, said having an understanding of the nuts-and-bolts of legislating is a positive for everyone, especially students.
“I look forward to this,” he said of his participation. “Any time you have the understanding of how laws are enacted, it’s better for all of us. It’s always great to see both sides of how this works.”
And he reminded the students that both lawmakers and those in public safety report to them, and the work public officials do should reflect that.
“You’re the boss,” Farr told students. “We are very much a direct reflection of what the community wants us to be.”
Each year, approximately 450 students from across Virginia travel to Richmond for the three-day Model General Assembly session, taking on roles that include elected officials, lobbyists and media and using the actual legislative chambers in the Virginia Capitol.
Arlington’s planned contingent of more than 100 is up about 40 percent from this past year. Local participation has been on a rocket-like trajectory, starting with a modest six students from the Arlington Career Center in 2009 and later expanding to schools throughout the county.
Statewide, about 55,000 Virginia students have participated since the program began in 1948, including some who have ended up in elected office themselves.