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Red Wing youths walk in legislators' shoes

Mark Dayton and Red Wing High School junior Alex Streff have a lot in common. Last week, Dayton was sworn in as governor of Minnesota. Now, he is working on appointing his staff.

Nearly the exact same thing can be said about Streff. He was elected governor this past weekend at the 2011 Youth in Government Model Assembly in St. Paul and is now gathering staff members.

The model assembly, sponsored by the YMCA, draws high school students from across Minnesota and western Wisconsin to the Capitol each year to take part in a mock legislative session.

Participants take on roles such as lobbyists, judges, attorneys, legislatures and the media. Everything that happens in real government happens at the model assembly.

"This is a program that is all about doing. Everyone has a real role in an activity that exactly mirrors the adult legislature," said Mike Melstad, director of Red Wing Family YMCA.

Streff, along with 108 other students from Red Wing, began preparing for this year's assembly about four months ago under the direction of Josh Thygesen, Red Wing Family YMCA's youth and teen program director. Thygesen said the eighth- through twelfth-graders met about a half dozen times prior to the assembly.

"It's prepping them for four ... very long days; it's from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.," Thygesen said.

Those four long days include movies, games and dances at night. But the majority of the students' time is taken up with debating issues, lobbying bills, campaigning, writing newspaper stories, producing nightly news broadcasts, vetoing bills and completing other legislative duties.

"They get a chance to work through real problems. Real writing, real debating, real compromise and resolution," Melstad said.

And it's not just the duties that mirror Minnesota's legislative process. The Capitol provides the setting for the mock session. Participants get to use the same judicial benches and legislative chambers that Minnesota officials do.

"I think it's ... surreal to them to see it on TV and then walk in and be seated at the exact same place. They're trying to learn about government and they're using the same building," Thygesen said.

Though Red Wing youths have been attending the model assembly for years, Streff's election made this year especially exciting. A Red Wing student hasn't held that position since the 1960s.

"It's a big deal because it's a top honor," Melstad said.

Streff began campaigning on Facebook before the assembly started. Once there, he and his team passed out buttons and paid for ads announcing his platform: lowering taxes, giving more funding to education and supporting nuclear energy and anti-abortion policies.

Streff said he had been thinking about running for Youth in Government governor since he began participating in the program as an eighth-grader.

" It felt like the right thing to do. I felt like we were qualified," he said.

Streff and his running mate, Esther Susag of Hastings, won the election by just four votes.

"It was really exciting. I jumped up and got really excited. All my roommates started yelling and you could hear other Red Wing kids yelling," he said.

Streff's official duties will primarily take place during next year's model assembly.

Two other Red Wing students were appointed positions for next year's session. Lars Lindahl will be the general manager for the radio station, and Ruby Buck will be the lobbyist director.

"Next year will be great," Streff said.

The participants did fundraising to pay for the trip, but received additional funding from the Duff Foundation.

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.