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Boys State of politics: Mock elections ring true to life as high school boys take up the cause

Shake on it

Federalist gubernatorial candidate Hogan Disbrow shakes hands with his Nationalist opponent Ben Lipson. Delegates at Tar Heel Boys State hold their mock election on Wednesday at Catawba College. Jon C. Lakey/Salisbury Post

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Keppel Auditorium on Wednesday was filled with chants and cheers. More than 200 high school boys crowded the seats, calling out slogans, waving flags or booing at each other across the aisles.

“They do get excited,” said Christopher Byrd, program coordinator for Boys State.

Boys from across the state gathered at Catawba College this week to participate in Tar Heel Boys State, an American Legion-sponsored program that has been running for more than 40 years.

Throughout the week, students become intimately acquainted with public policy and the inner workings of local and state government. Mock elections on Sunday filled local government positions, said Ryan Tewell, a student from Southport.

“We jumped straight into the political process,” he said.

Students were assigned to cities, counties and political parties. And by the end of the first day, mayors were elected and city charters were drafted.

On Wednesday, those running for state offices gave campaign speeches. Students let a bit of personal flair show through, sharing their own life stories or delivering their speech in the form of a rap.

Byrd said that’s one thing he’s noticed is different about this year. The 2016 presidential election left its mark on young people, and those coming to Boys State have a better idea of “what government is and what they can do.” Students are more likely to add that bit of originality and personality to their campaigns and are better able to pinpoint their beliefs and values, he said. And those are qualities that the Boys State experience will hone further.

“I truly think that they take away a better idea of leadership, how to work together and how to be a better citizen overall,” Byrd said.

It’s something that those who come to Boys State are aware of.

“I’m really looking for leadership experience,” said Collin Townsend of Wake Forest.

Townsend said that next year, he’ll be a first sergeant in his school’s ROTC program. When school starts, he wants to know he can lead.

For Tewell, Boys State sounded like an interesting experience. He said he’d always been interested in politics, and the camp seemed like “a really cool thing to get involved in.”

He’s still in high school, but Tewell said he’s already got a good grasp on his strengths and weaknesses.

“I don’t really succeed in this kind of environment,” he said with a smile. “I’m not a hype man.”

It was interesting to see the political process unfold, though, and he said he’s “tight” with others in his city. Boys were assigned to be in either the Nationalist or Federalist party on Sunday, and even though there’s little difference between party platforms, competition is fierce.

“As soon as we got in our parties, it’s red versus blue, baby,” Tewell said.

While Tewell said he doesn’t quite fit into the structure of the camp — or the current political process — the experience has been a positive one. If students put forth effort and commitment to Boys State, the rewards are there.

“It’s what you make of it,” he said.

Byrd said that, over the years, there’s a comment he repeatedly hears from parents that he thinks sums up Boys State. Parents tell him that “they dropped off a high school student, and they picked up a high school man.”

Girls State was held at Catawba College last week.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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