Boys State fostered political ambitions
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 6, 2012
The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary sponsor one of finest programs for high school students in Alabama. Boys State and Girls State is an event every June. Rising seniors in high schools all over the state are invited to these week-long leadership confabs, which are held at major universities for the top high school leaders throughout the state. It is a lesson in civics and first hand politics for these future leaders. The students are taught about government by practical experience. During their week at Girls and Boys State they build city, county and state governments and then they run them. They form political parties and run for every office. They draft and pass mock legislation. They culminate their week by visiting the Capitol and Statehouse and running state government.
This program has been going strong for more than 60 years and many of Alabama’s past and current state leaders have been participants of Boys and Girls State. I had the opportunity to be a Boys State participant 44 years ago this June. It was a magnificent experience. I developed lifetime friendships from Boys State.
As a teenager I was already involved with politics and had been active in several high school political endeavors. My high school principal told me earlier in the school year that I would be chosen to attend Boys State so it gave me ample time to plan to run for state office. I decided to run for governor. As might be expected with aspiring young high school politicos from all over the state by the time that Boys State began in June there were 27 of us running for governor.
My best state political buddy was a fellow from Auburn. He and I had been to numerous political leadership meetings together. We were both running for governor and as young politicians we were already cutting backroom deals. We were both presumptuous enough to assume that one of us, if not both, would be one of the top two vote getters and therefore be in the runoff. We agreed we would endorse the other in the runoff against any third interloper who might make the runoff against either of us. Much to our chagrin, neither one of us made the runoff. I finished third and he ran fifth.
I always blamed my loss on the infamous City 13. Each delegate is assigned to a city when they arrive. There were 14 cities with 30 boys in each city. As soon as the city’s citizens were determined all serious gubernatorial candidates started organizing a campaign plan for each city. You begin by getting a campaign manager in place for each city. I had determined that I needed only six votes in each city to make the runoff.
As is usually the case in high school the star football player is generally very popular. He probably is the most popular guy in his high school. By virtue of this they are considered leaders and they are picked to go to Boys State. These guys are usually more interested in lifting weights, talking to college football recruiters or hanging out with their girlfriends then in playing politics for a week. Most of them got bored early in the week and treated all the protocol with disdain. Toward the end of the week they were only participating in the sporting events. The weirdest thing happened. For some unknown reason every high school football star in the state had been assigned to City 13.
Being an athlete myself I knew quite a few of the citizens of City 13. I told my friend and campaign manager in City 13, who was a star split end and destined to sign with Alabama, that I only need six votes in his city. As I said, by the end of the week when it was time to vote they had grown disinterested in politics and were ready to go home. When the votes for governor came in I got zero votes in City 13. In fact, only 6 out of 30 of them had even bothered to vote.
The sordid and comical story of City 13 and their arrogant lack of interest in participation became legendary. In later years I asked the director of Boys State if they had intentionally put all of the state’s top athletes in City 13. He said it was totally unintentional but they vowed it would never happen again.
Boys State is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.