Politics in a parallel universeby Jeff Horwich, Minnesota Public Radio
Theory: our politicians can behave an awful lot like seventh graders. Fact: Seventh grade is a great place to break into politics. Not too long ago, students at Nicollet Junior High in Burnsville were choosing which students would represent them on the student council.
Burnsville, Minn. — At Nicollet Junior High in Burnsville, there are no speeches in front of the student body. And the school has traded the individual higher offices for a more egalitarian approach: 22 equal seats, apportioned by grade level. Teachers get to pick five of those seats, to help include a few students who otherwise might not make the cut.
Still, there are far more students running than there are seats to fill. Some will win, and many will lose. The basic ingredients are there for politics as we know it.
The vote is going to happen in the early afternoon, though the results won't be known for a few days. In the lunchroom, despite a wall covered with posters, there is a certain amount of voter apathy.
"I just don't think it's important to me," one student suggests.
Candidates like Taylor, an eighth grader, are aware much of the electorate is somewhat disengaged.
"Your best friends really care, so if you say 'I'm running,' then they really support you and wear all your buttons and put up posters for you and stuff," Taylor says.
But otherwise "they don't really care, they're just like, 'oh, yeah, sure I'll vote for you if you give me candy.'"
Candidates for student council agree that the main ingredient to a successful campaign is candy. Suckers, chocolate -- lots of things will work. Just show up at school with bags of it for the voters, and you'd better have more than the next guy.
Vivian, a ninth grader, begrudgingly plays the game.
"It disappoints me, because the people who really want to run a fair campaign and really help with the student council, they don't win. Because the person who had the money, passed out the candy, they get more votes," she says.
For Brent, a seventh grader, candy has become a campaign-finance issue.
"You can never buy enough candy for anyone," he reveals. "They just want more and more and more. I gave out gum once, but I'm not wasting money on that."
Brent's running on a platform of shorter lunch lines. Another candidate wants a grace period for students on sports teams to get their homework done. Another promises to cut down on school violence. Their advisor says quietly that, just like politicians in the real world, candidates tend to stretch a little beyond what a junior high student council really has the power to deliver.
But voters aren't talking much about the issues. There's far more interest in who drew a mustache on a girl's campaign poster. Brent, in particular, has seen his campaign lose its focus in recent days.
"One of my friends got in a fight with someone who was running, because he was taking down my posters and stealing my buttons and stuff," he says.
Brent says he was trying to keep his campaign positive, "but it wasn't working very well. I had to take down a few of his posters, blow off some steam."
In the final hours before the vote, candidates like the eighth-grader, Taylor, are still trying to reach out to score votes from beyond their usual constituencies.
"Some people you don't normally talk to, you talk to them during the elections, and then when it's over you just don't really talk to them anymore," he says.
And when the time comes, the candidates will step back and leave things in the capable hands of the voters.
Not that there's much faith in the voters.
"Not in junior high," says Vivian. "It's a complete popularity contest."
Vivian did not wind up getting into student council. And there's a larger postscript to this story.
Kevin Silberman, the teacher who oversees student government at Nicollet, was hoping the large number of minority candidates would yield a council that looked more like the student body as a whole. The school is 30 percent non-white.
When Silberman tallied the results, just three of 22 seats were filled by students of color. Silberman, who teaches social studies, says it's a disparity not all that different from the U.S. Senate. He plans to urge even more minority students to run next year.