Cynics might say that sessions of the state legislature may seem akin to kindergarten in any number of ways, but let’s focus on one specifically: If you don’t learn to make friends, you’re not going to lead a very successful existence.
“In the General Assembly, relationships do matter – you want to be reaching out to folks immediately,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th), one of the elected officials who huddled with Arlington Public Schools’ Model General Assembly contingent on Dec. 11 at the Arlington campus of George Mason University.
Nearly 60 county high-schoolers will descend on Richmond for three days in April to participate in the statewide leadership event. At the local level, the initiative is sponsored by the Arlington YMCA.
Lopez was joined by two state senators – Barbara Favola (D-31st) and Adam Ebbin (D-30th) – and Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, who reviewed the students’ proposed bills for the 2016 session and offered feedback.
Ebbin, who has served in both houses of the legislature, agreed with Lopez that forging alliances with those from other areas of the commonwealth was the hallmark of a savvy lawmaker.
“Before you tell them about your bills, ask them about their bills, and if you agree with them, ask how you can help,” he suggested to students. “Try to make allies.”
The student-legislators have drafted bills on subjects ranging from gun control to absentee voting to the death penalty.
Among the measures that Stamos said she would like to see the actual General Assembly take up in 2016 is one to increase the current threshold of $200 for a larceny to be considered a felony.
The Arlington students’ bill sought to raise that to $650 before a felony charge is levied, but Stamos suggested they try a different approach.
“Go for $1,000 and hope you get $500,” she said.
Stamos, who has participated in Model General Assembly mentoring before, said she always comes away with good feelings.
“It’s so inspiring,” she said. “You guys are great. I love how thoughtful you all are.”
But the morning’s events also included some lessons in realpolitik, Virginia-style.
One group of students proposed legislation that would require all public schools to provide wide-ranging bathroom options for transgender students and those who identify with neither gender. Favola said she appreciated the sentiment, but peppered the prospective legislators with a host of questions and cautions.
“The PTAs are going to be upset – they’re going to be worried,” she said of reaction to such a measure. “There are two sides of this – you could be making another set of students uncomfortable.”
Favola told the students they were “going to have to come up with better answers” to address concerns on the issue.
Feedback like that – call it “tough love” – is one reason that the real-world legislators meet with their student counterparts. (They do it four months in advance because the real General Assembly will be in session from January to March, keeping lawmakers in Richmond most of that time.)
The group that teamed with Favola also plans to push a measure for universal preschool-education programs, paying for it with state funds.
“You can create a more diverse preschool that way; it would be more of an equalizing situation,” said Salome Gongadze, a student at H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program who has been elected to serve as governor at the 2016 General Model Assembly.
Favola called the universal-preschool proposal “a societal good,” but again peppered students with questions: Who’s responsible for the curriculum? How will the funds be distributed? Will it be mandatory or optional? Will local governments be required to put in money?
“This is a very good idea, but it will come down to who is responsible [for footing the bill],” Favola said.
Two classrooms down the hall, students teamed with Ebbin were discussing proposing legislation to catch, neuter and release felines that live in the wild in so-called “cat colonies.”
The measure has been introduced in the real-world General Assembly before, and Ebbin told students that it was not a cut-and-dried issue.
“You will find animal groups on both sides of this bill, very passionately,” he said. “This is one of those bills you could say there are negatives on both sides. When I was in committee, I was very conflicted on how I was going to vote.”
The Virginia Model General Assembly Program dates back to 1948, with more than 50,000 students participating over the years. Arlington’s efforts began in 2009, when six Arlington Career Center students taking part. Not counting the upcoming 2016 contingent, a total of 126 Arlington students have participated over the past six years.