College students get firsthand lesson in Capitol lobbying

Mike Marcotte stood in a Capitol hallway outside the House floor on a recent weekday morning, craning his neck every time the doors swung open and a legislator emerged.

The Gustavus Adolphus senior scanned the crowd. He checked his watch. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure how much longer I can wait.”

Marcotte was hoping to get a few minutes with his representative, Paul Gardner, a DFLer from Shoreview (Marcotte still votes in the district where he grew up). He and another 60 Gustavus students had taken a day away from school to make sure their representatives were informed on the Minnesota State Grant Program and to offer a few reasons why they should avoid voting to cut the roughly $150 million spent each year on it.

Student group returns to Capitol each year
Lobbying for the program is an annual activity for the Minnesota Association of Private College Students, and Marcotte is the student president. Once a week running into early April, students from two of the member private colleges (on this morning, for example, it was Gustavus and Macalester) head over to the Capitol and try to connect with their legislators.

Several hundred private college students descend on the Capitol each session, a number that reveals both the grant program’s importance (and students’ competitive drive). Colleges battle to see who can bring the most students out each year, and last year, St. Scholastica won by bringing way more than 100, an almost improbable victory, considering the 300-mile round trip from Duluth and back.

The lobbying days are important events, considering that about 80,000 Minnesota students (including those at the University of Minnesota and other public schools) get a portion of the program’s revenue each year. The program isn’t usually targeted specifically in any session, but the association’s idea, particularly in years like this one where the Legislature faces a deficit, is to be proactive.

Welcome to the ‘real world’ of Capitol politics

The days have another, equally important function: They give college students, often accused of living in the insular world within their campus borders, a chance to see and participate in the real world, a chance to have their voice heard.

Just as Marcotte was leaving to track down his senator, Gardner burst from the House floor doors. They chatted about paper cuts (Gardner had a nasty one on his finger) and the winter flu for a minute, but Marcotte was able to make his pitch for the grant program. Then, Gardner excused himself for a vote on the floor.

Marcotte was pleased with the conversation. “That’s how it rolls,” he said. “He’s a good guy, pretty down to earth.”

He spent the next 20 minutes trying unsuccessfully to track down Sen. Sandy Rummel, DFL-White Bear Lake, and then had to leave. Marcotte is a student teacher, and he had to get back for evening conferences.

“Oh, well,” he said. “That’s how the lobbying process goes.”

A day later, though, Marcotte got an unexpected email.

Turned out that Rummel’s legislative aide was a Gustavus alum named Katy Johnson, who wrote to Marcotte after finding his contact info on Facebook. She apologized for the chaos at the Capitol that day (legislators hadn’t planned on extended floor sessions) and told him she’d set up a personal meeting for him if he had time to come back.

“Receiving this message meant the world to me,” Marcotte said later.

It was a reminder, however small, that his voice was heard. And, as importantly, that the network of Minnesota private college students extends well beyond those insular campus borders.

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