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Feature: Is there a page in the House?

Published (2/13/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Among this session’s two dozen pages are, from left, Luke Leadbetter, Tricia Van Eschen, Vitali Gueron and Elizabeth Young. Each comes to the House with a varied background. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Arguably, the 24 House pages are the elbow grease that keeps the wheel of House business moving.

Unexpected amendments to copy ASAP? Unscheduled testifiers to shepherd through a hearing? Temperamental overhead projector needs a calm hand? Need a bill jacket delivered pronto to a senator? Paperwork shuttled quickly to the chief clerk’s office?

“I think I call the pages every single day at least three times,” said Erin Huppert, legislative assistant to the House Public Safety Policy and Oversight Committee and to Reps. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) and Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester). Pages may help compile information, and are “invaluable” in committee, Huppert said, handling all manner of unexpected tasks.

In Garrison Keillor’s words, pages simply “do what needs to be done.”

Political passion wanted

A page’s job “can be a little monotonous, but if you’re enjoying being here, it’s not like work,” said First Assistant Sergeant-at-Arms Eric Bergstrom, the page’s supervisor. Not surprisingly, one quality he sought as he sifted through 150 applications for the 24 spots was an interest in politics.

Typical of those making the cut is Tricia Van Eschen, 22, a Hamline University graduate with a political science degree and job experience with ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). Two trips to New Orleans where she befriended locals still trying to rebuild their city three years after Hurricane Katrina really fueled her fire to create wider access to the political system.

She is happy to be learning the inside game by serving the House committees: Commerce and Labor, Civil Justice, Public Safety Policy and Oversight and the House Labor and Consumer Protection Division. The job is “like no other” way to experience the “hands-on, nitty-gritty working of the political system,” said Van Eschen.

Tongues in check

Most pages have partisan tendencies but appreciate the nonpartisan nature of their job.

Luke Leadbetter, 22, a University of Minnesota political science major, has sampled political jobs, including an internship with Sen. David Hann (R-Eden Prairie), and most recently, staffing the Ramsey County Elections office, where he was one of three employees that helped oversee the recount of 280,000 ballots. He saw his share of partisan sniping in the ensuing frenzy.

“I’m a big fan of nonpartisan jobs,” Leadbetter said. “I prefer to try to see an issue from both sides before I tackle it from one.”

Conversely, Liz Young, 25, admits she enjoys the “echo chamber” of a campaign office where she can speak her mind, but she is learning a lot from simply absorbing what goes on in committee hearings and getting to know legislative staff members.

Possibly the most fashion-forward page, Young wears her scarves knotted the French way and heels that don’t prevent her from wheeling carts laden with folders through the tunnels of the Capitol Complex. As a Syracuse University French and political science major, she spent one year in France, then two years teaching in Japan, her mother’s birthplace. But the Minnesota senate race drew her home to volunteer for the Al Franken campaign.

“I’d kind of seen it as Paul Wellstone’s seat,” Young said. “Not ever in a partisan way but as someone who stood up for people without a voice.” She believes the drive “to take care of each other” is the hallmark of Minnesota politics.

Vitali Gueron, 25, has also canvassed for a congressional campaign and witnessed political tension on an international scale as an intern with the Israel Project, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit. But the self-described “political junkie” has learned as a page that even partisan aficionados can keep their tongues in check when necessary.

“People are surprisingly very civil,” observed Gueron. A political science and Hebrew studies major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Gueron was born and lived in Bulgaria until he was 8, then moved to St. Paul with his family. He recently spent two years working at the United Jewish Fund and Council of St. Paul.

Page assignments may reflect their personal interests.

For example, Gueron lives in a LEED-certified building two blocks from a light rail station, so he was a happy to be assigned to the House Transportation Finance and Policy, and Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance divisions. He teams up with Leadbetter, who also supports renewable energy technology and public transportation, to serve the House Transportation and Transit Policy and Oversight Division.

These pages have their eyes on the next step on their political journey — Gueron mentions working on the governor’s race in 2010; Leadbetter, who speaks French, has applied for a job with the Canadian consulate or might join the Peace Corps; Young would like to lobby for women’s rights or work on a national campaign.

Van Eschen wants to return to New Orleans, possibly with AmeriCorps, and eventually pursue public policy graduate studies at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Meanwhile, she might be the only person who wouldn’t mind if the Legislature went into a special session, so she could keep working and start saving money toward those goals.

But it’s more than a paycheck.

“My parents asked me if I would have to work a special session,” Van Eschen recalled. “I said, ‘You mean get to.’”

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