Life in the Capitol: ‘Paging Senator Mansfield …’

Posted on March 11, 2011

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Sen. Lynda Moss of Helena listens as a legislative page relays a message. Each week of the session, top high school students from across Montana come to the Capitol to serve as pages and learn how state government really works. (Photo by Jayme Fraser)

For legislative pages, a week at the Capitol offers lessons in civics, history and the importance of comfortable shoes.

By DAN VIEHLAND

HELENA – Shannyn Henkel offers one piece of wisdom to every high school student who comes to serve as a page for the Montana Legislature: “It gets easier, I swear,” she said.

Pages are on the move from the moment they hit the Capitol, climbing its stairways and winding through its labyrinthine hallways to deliver messages and run errands for legislators and staffers whose faces and names they have yet to learn. The first day is nerve-wracking.

“By Tuesday they know everything, but on Monday they’re timid,” said Henkel, who coordinates pages for the House of Representatives.

Every week, fresh pages arrive from across Montana, and they come for many reasons. Some are enticed by the prospect of a week’s break from school. Some come to build their resumes. The $7.35 they earn per hour helps, too.

Many also hope to learn about government and see if they have a taste for politics. Clint Cooper, 17, of Polson, was invited to serve by Rep. Janna Taylor, a hometown Republican. He said he was curious to learn how Montana’s government works “from a legislator’s point of view.”

Many, especially pages from small towns, are eager to meet teens from elsewhere. Some become friends over the course of the week, and most take home stories about the people they met and events they have witnessed.

Henkel tries to enhance the experience by sending her charges on scavenger hunts in which pages are challenged to answer questions about the Capitol or Montana history.

Quick, what’s the name of the bronze woman atop the Capitol’s copper dome? No fair using the Internet or a cell phone. (She’s called “Montana.”)

VALUABLE LESSONS

Pages also learn that most political debates have at least two sides. More important, they learn the value of civil discussion. Henkel keeps her own politics to herself when she’s around her pages, but she frequently mediates their debates over the hot topics that echo through the building.

“They all have their preconceived notions,” Henkel said. “I encourage them to talk and see the other side.”

When time allows, pages have been known to play tricks on one another. One especially gullible male page was recently dispatched with a message for “Senator Mansfield.” He’s just around the corner, another page advised.

The young man eventually returned, his face red from the embarrassing discovery that “Senator Mansfield” is a statue of the legendary U.S. senator and former ambassador.

“Was his wife with him?” another page asked with a straight face.

Other famous Montanans appear in the flesh. Allison Cazier, 17, of Toston, said the highlights of her week included meeting the people who make Montana run. Beyond legislators, pages frequently get to meet the state’s top executives, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer. They may even catch a glimpse of the governor’s dog, Jag.

What’s the worst part of the job? Everyone complains about the stairs. Morgan Kuntz, 18, from Dillon, advised prospective pages to choose comfort over fashion when it comes to shoes.

“It doesn’t matter if they are stylish, go for comfort,” she said. “My shoes got more and more grandma-like as the week went on.”

Henkel said some of the pages already know one another through previous associations in programs such as Boys State, Girls State or the National Forensics League. Amber Stenson, 18, of Dupuyer, came to Helena on the heels of her friend, Casey, who had been a page the week before. “Casey says she already misses you,” she told Henkel when they first met.

Henkel beams when she talks about her pages. “My experience is that they are your cream-of-the-crop honors program kids,” she said. “They are the passionate kids, the ones who are going to college, who are going places.”

POLITICS, ANYONE?

Most pages wind up doing something other than politics, but the experience can jumpstart a political career. Cree Shield, a 17-year-old from Great Falls, said she was offered a job as an aide to one of the representatives. She also plans to work on legislative campaigns in 2012.

A few even return to the Capitol as legislators. Veteran state Sen. Steve Gallus, a Democrat from Butte, said he knew he wanted to be a legislator on his first day as a page, way back in 1991.

“I know that the page program really did instill something in me. It’s a beautiful room,” Gallus said. “I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of, and now I have been for 12 years.”

Gallus recalled one key political lesson he learned as a page. No matter how fiercely the floor debates raged, he remembered seeing legislative rivals leave the floor as friends.

“The discourse doesn’t have to be too personal,” he said. “I try to keep to the issues as much as I can. The best course for good legislation is respectful debate.”

Although Gallus’ legislative career will end after this term, he hopes his successors will continue to support the page program.

“I hope future legislators see the value of the page program and continue to fund it because I really do feel it’s a building block for future leaders and future policy makers in Montana,” he said.

– Dan Viehland is a senior studying journalism at the University of Montana.