For two days last week, two teenagers served as governor of Arkansas.
Well, not really. Mike Beebe remains governor, unless he is traveling out of state, in which case Lt. Gov. Mark Darr is the state’s chief executive.
The "governors" were Abby Hutton from Springdale, a student at Shiloh Christian High School, and Scott Sims from McGehee High School. The two were elected to their positions at Arkansas Girls State and Arkansas Boys State.
The week-long camps teach nominated high school seniors about government and politics. Boys State, sponsored by the American Legion, is hosted by the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, while Girls State is sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary and is held at Harding University in Searcy.
The students spend the week hearing speeches, going to sessions, and politicking. They’re divided into two parties, where they run for many of the same local and state offices for which adults compete. At the end of the week, those elected to state offices descend on the Capitol to serve for a few hours in those positions. While Abby and Scott were sitting in the governor’s office, some of their fellow students were voting on various laws as state legislators. Two from each camp are elected to later serve as delegates to Boys Nation and Girls Nation in Washington, D.C.
How important a training ground are Boys State and Girls State? President Clinton was serving as a delegate to Boys Nation when that famous photograph of him and President Kennedy was taken. Mike Huckabee was governor of Boys State before he was governor of Arkansas. Mack McLarty, who served as Clinton’s chief of staff in the White House, also was a Boys State governor. Seventeen legislators in this year’s General Assembly had attended Boys State or Girls State.
I attended Boys State in 1990. I had a great time even though I didn’t campaign for any offices.
Abby occupied the governor’s office in the Capitol on Thursday, May 30, while Scott took his turn the next day. As soon as she was elected, she was whisked away from her fellow delegates and asked to appoint about 30 of them to various offices. Some, such as the director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, were easier because she was familiar with that state agency. Others were harder.
"I didn’t know that I needed a director of the department of Social Security disability benefits," she said. "That was interesting."
Abby said she was already politically aware – she calls herself "kind of a states’ rights person" who believes in a small federal government – before she arrived at Girls State. She’s a Student Council president who is active in her church and community. She knows what she wants to do in life – work as an industrial engineer. She’s also a pilot who volunteers at the Veterans Administration hospital with her dog, Annie.
Scott, meanwhile, is a good student with a 31 on his ACT who is still mulling his options for college and career. He was not particularly politically aware before arriving at Boys State. Instead, he’s been preoccupied with excelling in school and growing up – which is exactly what he is supposed to be doing. "Before Boys State here, I would have probably told you I don’t have much of an opinion," he said. "Between football and … my four AP classes, I haven’t really had time to keep up with politics or anything. It’s hard to find time to breathe and sleep."
Neither had thought much about running for office before this summer, but after their weeklong immersions into government and politics, both are interested now. But neither point to particular issues that would motivate them. Instead, they’re more concerned with the character of elected officials. Abby referenced the current IRS scandal and the legal travails of Arkansas’ former treasurer, Martha Shoffner.
She said that, in her election, she received a standing ovation after a speech where she said she would govern with a servant’s heart, with Jesus as her example.
"He would bend down and wash dirty, dusty, awful feet, and I think that’s the spirit each of our politicians have to have," she said.
A servant’s heart. Who would vote against that?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.