Mr. Edwins goes to St. Paul
Sixteen-year-old Charles Edwins' exceptional interest in government and public service landed him — briefly — in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
A Nevis High School junior, he was one of only 80 students selected statewide to serve as a page in a week-long immersion program.
For over 40 years, the Minnesota House of Representatives High School Page Program has provided students "with hands-on access to state government in action." Modeled after the U.S. Congress Page Program, Minnesota's equivalent was established in 1975.
Participants were told numerous times, Edwins said, that competition was stiff.
The page program is open to all Minnesota high school students in their junior year. A formal application process occurs each fall.
Edwins' social studies teacher, Rich Johnson, told him about the opportunity.
"He was one of about four students Superintendent Parks and I took to see Sen. Amy Klobuchar and several others speak in Park Rapids last fall about rural development," Johnson recalled.
Edwins applied last November, submitting the required paperwork and a 500-word essay.
Impressed with Edwins' aptitude and interest in social studies, Johnson wrote a letter of recommendation.
"He has an excellent historical knowledge base, an excellent understanding of political science and shows a deep interest in history and politics, so I thought it was a perfect fit," Johnson said.
"Few students, much less teenagers, focus on these issues and are largely apathetic towards the gargantuan topic that is politics until this rather contentious and controversial election," Edwins wrote in his essay. "My wish is to attend this program to gain a new perspective and the learning process that comes with it, to continue to pursue my interest in government and the rest of the world, and finally to work towards any goal I set in my career and personal life."
In December, he learned that he was accepted.
"It seems he really enjoyed it," Johnson said.
During the first week of April, Edwins experienced the legislative process firsthand by assisting members in the House Chamber.
"The majority of our time was spent on the House floor during sessions," he said. "Our week was the busiest. We spent 30 hours on the House floor."
Pages deliver copies of bill and other legislative material — for instance, vote counts on amendments or letters from other House members — to representatives.
"It was pretty complex. We had a lot of rules we had to follow. But our main job was just to accommodate the representatives, so that meant handing out papers, delivering messages from constituents as well as whatever else they needed," Edwins explained.
A lot of controversial bills were discussed during his week at the Capitol.
One bill that stood out in particular was entitled HF390. It's the bill that imposed restrictions on protesters by increasing penalties for obstruction of trunk highways or airports.
"It was pretty controversial. That was on the first day. That session lasted around 13 hours."
Some sessions have lasted until 7 a.m. the next day, Edwins noted, adding that could be due to filibusters, extensive debate or the need to discuss numerous details.
Pages, however, strictly worked from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8:30 a.m. to noon on Friday.
"We actually couldn't spend much time paying attention to the debate because we were always moving," he said.
The pages also attended a committee session, then held a mock one. They choose to debate the merits of HF390.
Prior to the mock committee session, Edwin and his cohorts spent two hours in the House research library, studying the issue and preparing their arguments.
The decision was split 4-4 among pages, but the state Legislature passed the bill.
Working on the House floor held some surprises.
"I was pretty surprised when I saw a lot of representatives on their phones or tablets or laptops playing games. By the end of the week, I realized it was justified. Through every bill, depending on how many committees it went through and what was discussed, they've probably heard all those debates five or six times," Edwins said. "By the time they walk in there, they already know how they are voting. To be fair, the sessions are mainly for TV and the formality of actually conducting the vote."
Throughout the course of his week at the Capitol, Edwins had a scheduled, one-on-one interview with his district representatives, including District 2B Rep. Steve Green.
He also met a state senator, the Speaker of the House, the Minnesota Secretary of State and Gov. Dayton.
The pages gathered in the Governor's personal office.
"That was pretty interesting," Edwins said. "None of the other pages would get the opportunity to do that. It was a very, very lucky break — like, he had 10 free minutes."
Edwins previously encountered the Governor at the 2013 Fishing Opener in Park Rapids
"I already had a positive opinion of the Governor and meeting him just kind of elevated that," he said. "He is pretty pragmatic."
He was unimpressed by his fellow pages, which he describes as "lazy." The majority of them lived within 30 minutes of the Capitol building, while Edwins stayed at a hotel two blocks away.
Edwins was the sole page from northern Minnesota that week.
Although recognizing flaws in the legislative system, Edwins says the Capitol experience has heightened his interest in politics.
In his free time, the political aficionado researches both past and current ideologies.
"I spend a lot of my time studying politics, economics and the history of other nations. I do plan on going into politics, or at the very least, majoring in political science," he said. "I picked up this interest about a year ago. I've always had an interest in large, societal issues, like history, but that really boosted once I read some political books my dad had."
He has read Karl Marx's "The Communist Manifesto," Charles Dickens and Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," among others.
With his keen interest in diplomacy, Edwins regularly reads newspapers and tracks international events — the Middle East, Russia and Syria, in particular.
He attempted to learn the Russian language, but it proved too challenging.
During the 2016 general election, he served as an election official.
Edwin describes his political leanings as "a combination of socially authoritarian views, not necessarily conservative, as well as holding left economic views. So it's very comparable to social democracy or democratic socialism, kind of in that range."
"His teachers and I are very proud of him," says mom Carmen Arellano.