Four promising high school students gave me hope for a changing government
I know this admission does not befit well someone in my position, but my anticipation of the election season about to enter full swing includes a fair amount of dread.
The gubernatorial race is going to be brutal. The mid-term Congressional and U.S. Senate races will be worse. Together they will be an inescapable reminder of the dismal state of American politics today and of the caliber of most of the people attracted to holding political office.
We’ve already been subjected to the sad spectacle of state senators Joe Leibham and Glenn Grothman’s indefensible refusal to attend pre-primary forums sponsored by one of the few remaining authentic good government organizations around, the League of Women Voters, because they don’t like the League. Could there be a clearer indication of these two guys being unworthy of holding public office? And this is just the beginning.
But this column is not about cynicism and despair. In fact Congress and state leaders have dragged this country down about as far as it can go.
While I harbor no illusions of dramatic change in November, I think the tide is turning. And I found the best evidence of that last month when I spent a few hours with four high school students who were part of a pretty special summer internship program. The four, Sidney Litke, Nate Merz, Keeley O’Dell and Nee Young, are all seniors-to-be at Janesville high schools, two at Parker and two at Craig.
Together they comprise the current class of the Tim Cullen Government Internship Program. That alone makes the program unusual, that it is funded by Senator Tim Cullen and his wife Barb through a family foundation. When’s the last time you heard of an elected official using his own money to support young people with paid positions learning about the possibilities of public service? Cullen of course is one of the few remaining good ones, and he’s leaving office this fall having decided not to run again.
Partisans on both sides will laugh at me for bringing this up—it is after all so old school and out of date—but you might very well have missed the story of former Governor Tommy Thompson inviting Cullen and fellow outgoing Senators Dale Schultz and Bob Jauch to his Elroy farm for a steak and a beer and conversation about how to restore civility to politics today.
But I can tell you this, Sidney and Nate and Keeley and Nee get it, and if I had to guess I’d say these four will have a role in making it happen. They’re impressive kids. Each spends part of each day for eight weeks in the offices of their respective legislator/mentor/boss. And credit to Senator Schultz from Richland Center, Representative Andy Jorgensen from Milton, Representative Debra Kolste from Janesville and Representative Travis Tranel from Cuba City—two Republicans and two Democrats—for agreeing to have the four students as interns.
But the students also spend time with former Governor Tony Earl, Bob Lang, the retired, long-time director of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, other local officials and folks like, well, me, all with different perspectives on civic life and what it means and how it works.
The internship pays $400 a week to allow kids who might not be able to participate because they need a summer job to apply. The students were smart, engaged, curious and professional beyond their years. They were also civil and hopeful.
Nate made it clear he planned to run for office someday. Sidney said she was likely to consider it later. For now she says she’ll run Nate’s campaign. All seemed deeply interested as we talked about how we—the media and our elected officials, the ones they’ll become if not the ones we have now—share a responsibility to rebuild the bond of trust that has been broken.
Those few hours were enough to get me through this November. I think.
Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.