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May 26, 2008

Elementary, My Dear Watson Part Two

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week, we covered the symbols and name recognition in Maryland. This week, we look at how to make a speech about how a legislator works interesting to a fourth grader. No small feat, that!


After a quick spiel on the three braches of government and how they interact, we cover the basics of acting as a legislator. When asked, most children define law-making in its highest form, the lofty debates, the public testimony, and the long sessions spent on the floor to resolve an issue. Silly kids!


Most are totally unaware that the majority of the real work, such as it is, of the legislature in done in committee. Fewer understand that only a handful of legislators control the entire process, from start to finish; and that most outcomes are choreographed in advance. Hard to sell them on the whole “will-of-the-people” thing when, in truth, it’s more like the will of the House Speaker and Senate President!


I avoid talking about how people travel from all over Maryland to testify on a bill, only to find that legislators stroll into committee late (if ever), and that their elected representatives will shift a controversial topic to the end of the day in the hopes that most people will have to leave for home before their pet topic even comes up.


The role of lobbyists and paid advocates is also invisible, probably because that’s how they want it. The more people who know how to influence the process, the less likely it is that lobbyists will retain their control.


I often wonder, standing at the front of those classrooms, how many of the teachers are aware of influence of the Maryland State Teachers Association, and how that influence affects policy outcomes, good and bad.


Instead of leaving it to a stand-up lecture to make the point about how a legislature really works, we try to replicate, in a very small way, the dynamics of the process right there in the class or cafeteria.


In past years, we’ve chosen committees and had them discuss specific issues, like banning the sale of violent video games (not too popular with the boys) and the mandatory use of school uniforms (not too popular with the girls). I specifically “load” the panels with differences of opinion through initial polling, trying to create, albeit in miniature, the tension of Annapolis.


Once the panel is seated, we take their pulse on the legislative idea. At that point, the biases are obvious and strongly held. Then, yours truly plays lobbyist, appearing before the panel in both the supporter and opponent role, using tactics I’ve seen employed by the best in the business to alter opinions. Never outright lying, I do employ some questionable techniques to sway the more susceptible.


This year, coming on the heels of the state cake designation, we used the creation of a state soda brand as the idea. An hour of spirited debate over brands, flavors, and preferences ensues, and some of these children are amazingly convincing, others are just plain gullible. You can pick out the future politicians, the ones who forge alliances and use coercion to influence their peers.


In the wrap-up exercise, we review who did what, why some things worked better than others, the power of persuasion, and the difference between consensus and principle. One clear example in the soda discussion were the students, when faced with three final choices, who inadvertently voted for more than one, which served to diffuse their vote for their true preference.


These hour-long adventures do much more for me than they do for those children. I take away some of their energy, I marvel at the developing mind, at the sacrifices made by our teachers and administrators to benefit our children; and I’m buoyed by the fact that so many of these young strangers are familiar with my “work.”


My personal favorites are the students who say they want to be a delegate, and, of course, the children who ask for an autograph. That’s just plain cool! The future is bright, as our future leaders demonstrate great energy, interest, and knowledge of their world and how badly we’ve screwed it up.


So, don’t get too caught up in worry about the future of our government. The kids can handle it. It’s elementary!


For those still reading, here are the answers to last week’s quiz on the state symbols (in order):


The State Dog – Chesapeake Bay retriever;

The State Cat – Calico;

The State Flower – Black-eyed Susan;

The State Bird – Oriole

The State Tree – White Oak;

The State Horse – Standard-bred;

The State Crustacean – Blue Crab;

The State Sport – Jousting;

The State Team Sport – Lacrosse;

The State Gemstone – Patuxent River Agate;

The State Exercise – Walking; and

The State Cake – Smith Island Cake.


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