National politics came close to home Tuesday for students at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School. They gathered in the school gymnasium for the 2000 Mock Political Convention.
The students picked George W. Bush to be the next president, but opinions were anything but unanimous. The votes may have been symbolic, but the passion and energy were very real.
"You can boo or cheer, but everyone has a right to be heard," said keynote speaker Cara Mazurek, setting the tone in her introductory remarks.
The students, from grades seven to 12, ran the event. On the floor, 385 young delegates waved placards from the 50 states.
The heart of the convention was a spirited and sometimes raucous discussion of 13 resolutions drafted in advance by the resolutions committee and individual students. Issues ranged from the localized concern of school parking sticker fees to national issues such as abortion.
The final votes often took dramatic detours away from the American political mainstream.
The Nikiski teens wanted to legalize marijuana, add women to the military draft, ban abortion, end affirmative action, force the federal government to privatize its landholdings and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration.
However, they balked at having Alaska secede from the union. That went down to a loud voice vote, as a young man in the back of the hall shouted, "God bless America."
The discussions started off with the touchy subject of "public display of affection" on school grounds. The first resolution advocated reinstituting the "six-inch rule" requiring that couples keep at least that far apart on school grounds. Although some students complained about "gross" kissing in hallways, most took the side eloquently expressed by Nigel Penhale.
"If I cannot even hold the hand of the person I love, I am oppressed," he declared fervently.
That resolution went down to a resounding defeat.
Other resolutions also inspired emotional testimony.
The second was to reinstate corporal punishment in public schools.
Some speakers were aghast at the prospect; others expressed a need for stricter discipline to mold better character.
"Disciplining a child should be left for at home," said Ruben Floyd. "Maybe if you get in trouble at school, you should get in trouble at home for getting in trouble at school."
The issue prompted such a close vote that the co-chairs requested a recall. But in the end, the view Floyd expressed carried the day, and the measure was defeated.
Religion in school was another hot topic. The fourth resolution advocated limiting religious activities to outside school hours. Proponents complained about social pressure encouraging Christian proselytizing.
But the opponents linked their faith and their freedoms.
"Does this mean this is a free country -- except during the eight to nine hours I'm on school grounds?" asked Zach Hall.
That resolution failed, too.
As the convention moved into its final hour, however, the testimony sometimes strayed into sarcasm.
Before the students voted to approve a resolution to pay rewards to people for turning in illegal immigrants, Robert Doty poked fun at what could be a serious matter.
"I like immigrants, but I think I like money better," he said, speaking in support of the measure. "It helps lazy people feel better about themselves."
The only nonstudents to speak were five candidates running for the Alaska Legislature: Mike Chenault, Hal Smalley, James Price, Mike Szymanski and Jerry Ward, who attended as guest speakers. The candidates praised the mock convention and spoke of the students' future opportunities and responsibilities as citizens and leaders.
The presidential vote was the last item on the agenda. Four students gave stump speeches on behalf of Libertarian Harry Browne, Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.
During the role call of states that followed, Bush took an early lead and never lost it. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and "none of the above" showed up early. Buchanan and Gore dueled for second place during most of the count, but the Reform candidate edged out the Democrat. Students cast lone votes for teachers Al Anderson and Vern Kornstad, House District 9 candidate Mike Chenault, entertainer Howard Stern and actor Harrison Ford, plus two votes for someone listed as "Josh Pepper's dad."
When the votes were tallied, Bush was one short of the 193 needed for a majority and first ballot win.
State delegate leaders lined up for a frenzy of vote changes.
When they finished, Bush was the clear victor with 208 votes. Buchanan was second with 60. Gore had 53. Browne and Nader trailed with 26 and 23 votes, respectively.
Tuesday's convention was the fifth time Nikiski students have had the chance to explore democracy through the presidential race. The program started in 1984 at Kenai Central High School.
Four years ago, the Nikiski students gave most of their votes to "none of the above." In 1992, they gave the nod to Ross Perot.
Government teacher Bob Bird is the faculty sponsor and mastermind behind the production. He attended the 1996 Republican Convention and the 2000 Reform Party Convention.
After Tuesday's excitement, he expressed satisfaction with the event and made special note of how close the group came to a second round of polling.
"That was one of the most dramatic roll calls I've ever seen," he said.
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