After spending a week introducing legislation and arguing policy, senators to the 67th Boys Nation got an opportunity on Wednesday to see the "real thing," as they spent the day on Capitol Hill meeting and, in some cases, playing shadow to their states’ U.S. senators.
For Connecticut senators Ben Gee and Ethan Swain, the meeting with their U.S. senators went well beyond the typical pleasantries and photo opportunity. Gee and Swain walked into the Senate building of Capitol Hill thinking they’d meet with Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., for about 15 minutes apiece, then spend the rest of the day touring nearby sites and monuments.
But thanks to the generosity of Murphy and Blumenthal, the two senators got a totally different experience. They ended up spending the entire day in the Senate building, trailing Blumenthal as he rushed from one committee meeting after another, and shadowing Murphy as he juggled a schedule of arguing an amendment on the Senate floor and speaking before a Hasidic Jew leadership conference.
"We spent the whole day with our senators," Gee said. "We entered the Congress around 9:00 (a.m.) and left at 2:40 (p.m.). We had almost no time for lunch. We left the Congress building and we were like ‘Wow, the whole day went by and it felt like three seconds.’"
Their day started when they met Blumenthal. Famed for his gregarious personality and tendency to walk at a speedy clip, Blumenthal immediately greeted the senators, posed for a picture, then told them to follow him and try their best to keep up.
"He said ‘all right, follow me because I have a fast stride,’" Gee said. "He led us on a three-hour wild goose chase where we went into judiciary committee meetings."
Their meeting with Murphy was just as memorable. Murphy, a Boys State alumnus, realized he was scheduled to argue for an amendment midway through his conversation with Gee and Swain. So he invited the two senators to accompany him to the Senate floor.
On the way, he made a pit stop to appear at a Hasidic Jew leadership conference.
"We thought it would be just a few handshakes, but he actually had to give a speech," Swain said. "He gives this impromptu speech, then we go through the security area and get on the tram and we go into the private section of the Senate."
Vermont Boys Nation senators Dave Koonz and Tyler Marquis received similar treatment from their U.S. senators. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., kept Koonz and Marquis occupied the entire day, visiting with them before a meeting with a dignitary from Vietnam and talking with them about Vermont, their families and the legislation they were pushing for at Boys Nation.
The highlight came when Leahy, the president pro tempore of the Senate, escorted the senators to his private balcony, which overlooks the Reflective Pool, Washington Monument and much of the Capitol. Leahy brought them all together for a picture with the beautiful D.C. scenery in the background.
"He motioned to the two secret service guys and was like, ‘Come on guys, get in the picture,’" Koonz said. "It brought smiles to everybody… . To look over where they have the inauguration, it was amazing."
Other senators, including James Park from West Virginia, got to ride the subway system – or "tram" – that runs underneath the Capitol Building from the House side to the Senate side.
The tram is restricted to staff or U.S. senator use only, but Park got to ride it because a staff member accompanied him.
"It was really cool because we saw Senator (Ted Cruz) getting on and he sat in the exact spot where we were," Park said. "…I had been to Capitol Hill before, but it wasn’t like this. I was too young to appreciate it."
For Gee, who has political aspirations, it was another unforgettable day in a series of unforgettable days that have quantified his Boys Nation experience.
"It was so exciting because we are mimicking the government here," Gee said. "We are in this (Capitol) building, which is enormous and beautiful and there is so much history here. You read about all these senators and laws and see them on TV, but to be a part of it – we were just all smiles."
Tune into www.legiontv.org from 8:00-9:30 p.m. EDT tonight to watch live streaming of the Boys Nation graduation ceremony