Truth be told, Chase Atwood wasn’t particularly pumped to attend the American Legion Boys State event in Portales.
Boys State - and its equivalent, Girls State - is a national program that gives high school juniors a participatory look at the operation of local, county and state government. As usual, the five-day session was scheduled to take place on the Eastern New Mexico University campus smack dab in the middle of the summer. The June scheduling proved inconvenient for Atwood, who planned to spend his days at the golf course and hanging out with buddies.
“I wasn’t sure about going at first,” Atwood said recently. “My mom kind of made me. I didn’t think I’d get along with those type of people.”
By those type of people, Atwood means intellectuals who were more into Meet the Press than MTV.
But what Atwood discovered after settling into a dormitory room and setting out to make the best of a bad situation was that his stereotype didn’t hold true.
“The people weren’t as bad as I thought - surprisingly,” he said. “It became a lot easier after you got to know them and they got to know you.”
As it turns out, the 110 delegates from all over New Mexico got the chance to know Atwood better than many of his friends. Elected mayor of one of four cities and enjoying the power it brought, Atwood next campaigned for governor - and had to do some quick thinking on his feet during a debate with six other candidates.
Topics and questions ranged from legalization of marijuana to illegal immigration.
“I can stand up and not have anything written down and just be able to talk. I don’t get nervous,” said Atwood, who is on the HHS golf team and is a National Honor Society member. “Plus, I like politics. I’ve always watched and listened and had my opinion on what is going on in government. It’s interesting to me.”
Perhaps no surprise then, that the confident 17-year-old was elected in a five-candidate primary battle as the Federalist representative and easily won the general election for governor. By doing so, Atwood became only the second Hobbs resident –Rashawn Jackson was elected Boys State governor in 2001 - ever to win the highest post at an event that has been around for decades.
Within hours of his win and shortly after calling his mom to report the news, Atwood began enjoying the perks of office – including security guards who were posted outside his dormitory room and escorted him wherever he went. Unlike the regular citizenry who had to use stairs, Atwood and his entourage took elevators and always had a front position in the cafeteria line.
But there were responsibilities as well. Atwood had cabinet appointments to make, attended meet-and-greets at each of the four cities, listened to voter concerns and often worked late into the night and long after his constituents were fast asleep. Most importantly, Atwood campaigned to have his bills clear the Legislature and become law.
While more bills were vetoed than passed during the 2011 Boy State session, Atwood and company managed to reach consensus on a DWI reform law that mandates prison time for a first offense and education measures that result in jail time for students who drop out of school. Along the way, he delivered a state of the union address and presided over a closing ceremony.
Come January, Atwood and his lieutenant governor will attend the legislative session in Santa Fe, their proposed measures firmly in hand. Pointing out that the current DWI interlock mandates originated at Boys State, Atwood said he will not be play-acting when he meets with his counterpart, Gov. Susanna Martinez, and makes presentations to the House and Senate. “The coolest thing about all of our work is that it really can be put into law,” Atwood said.
And the coolest thing about Atwood’s experience, according to Kay Bryan, is Atwood’s belief that he can make a difference.
Bryan is secretary-treasurer of the Hobbs American Legion Ladies Auxiliary and revived the post’s local sponsorship of Boys and Girls State after it lagged for a couple years. The 65-year-old Hobbs woman’s enthusiasm for the program can be traced to when she herself attended Girls State while a high school junior living in Wyoming.
“If I hadn’t gone to girls state myself, I probably wouldn’t recognize the importance of it,” Bryan said. “The whole point is these students are our future. If we don’t have good young people learning about how our government works, going into politics and willing to take office, we are lost as a nation.”
For his part, Atwood isn’t yet willing to commit to a future run for office. But his experience at Boys State has only enhanced his political curiosity. “I’ve always been interested in what the economy and the government is doing because it affects me every single day. I’m going to keep in contact with my representatives – but might not necessarily be one,” Atwood said.
Oh, and yes, the HHS senior acknowledges that his mother’s insistence that he attend Boys State was spot on. “At first it was hard, but what I first thought of the people turned out not to be right at all,” the governor said. “They were regular kids.”