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A close-up look at government

By Frank J. Kraut   |   March 28, 2016

Part of the DePaul University experience is the chance to engage in travel, associate with professionals and learn in settings other than classrooms. I found this to be especially true on my trip to Springfield on March 1-2 for the  Shadow a Legislator offering, part of School of Public Service’s Authentic Experiences series.

I thought I’d share details on my rewarding experience.

Why I signed up: 

This winter I took MPS 526, Local Government Administration with Professor Nick Kachiroubas, as part of my MPA. Perhaps this coincidence influenced me to sign up for the trip to shadow a representative in the state’s capital. The trip seemed applicable to the current political climate in Illinois (MAP grant funding, budget impasse) and the course content (state and local government, home rule). Besides, my course instructor, Prof. Kachiroubas, led the trip.

I felt this could be a great opportunity to really learn something about the political process in Springfield. I also had to be honest with myself: When would I ever be able to take a trip like this, under these circumstances? 

How I signed up: Using the Eventbrite website, students purchased electronic “tickets” to secure a room at the Mansion View Inn, a few blocks from the Capitol. The next step was to reach my state representative to see if I could shadow him or her for a day.

My rep is Silvana Tabares of the 21st District. Because another student on the trip lives in the same district, Prof. Kachiroubas suggested I try to make arrangements with another representative, in order to have a more personal experience. He suggested David Harris of the 53rd District. This was mainly because of Rep. Harris’s military background (he is a retired major general and former Adjutant General of Illinois) and my current military service.

It turns out that Rep. Harris’s son and I were classmates at West Point — small world! 

Highlight One: 

As soon as I arrived to his office, Rep. Harris greeted me with enthusiasm and incorporated me into his day. He asked me questions about myself, told me what was on his schedule for the next couple of days, and invited me to observe a committee meeting. On the way to the meeting and back from it, he introduced me to several legislators from the House and the Senate. He even took me on an impromptu walking tour of the Capitol, pointing out major offices, taking me on the House floor and explaining some of the history of the building.

The next morning he invited me to sit on meetings with lobbyists from several organizations, some scheduled and others who walked in with the hope of getting a few minutes of his time.

Other students expressed similar sentiments. The representatives accommodated us and treated us with respect, but also acted naturally, giving us a glimpse of their true nature. In short, they were honest.

Highlight Two: 

Representative Lou Lang of the 16th District, the principal planner of the trip along with Prof. Kachiroubas, hosted an informal gathering for the students and representatives on the Capitol’s first floor. The purpose was to introduce ourselves and ask the representatives questions.

This experience began innocuously, with the standard, “Hello, my name is and I’m from” intros. The climate in the room changed dramatically as students asked tough questions.

Representatives shared their perspectives candidly and held nothing back. They openly disagreed with each other. They challenged each other on their views.

Nevertheless, they maintained their professionalism and good nature. They kept this up later that evening when representatives Lou Lang and Mike Tryon, of the 66th District, treated us to pizza at a local restaurant.

Highlight Three: 

Prof. Kachiroubas planned the trip for when the state legislature was in session. My recommendation to anyone planning to visit the Capitol is to do likewise. Our state Capitol is a beautiful building, and it is the tallest non-skyscraper Capitol in the United States.

But what occurs inside the building is the real draw.

Watching state senators and representatives debate issues of great importance to many people is interesting, educational and informative — and at times fun. Of course, Democrats and Republicans take sides, and they speak passionately about their views. But visitors also find many subtleties and nuances to observe. The general assembly is similar to a sports arena in that a spectator will enjoy a richer experience than a viewer at home will.

What I learned: 

I have a greater understanding of what happens in the capital city. Several of my classmates shared that the trip influenced some of their own decisions: Should I go into politics or administration? Do I want to run for my position, or compete for a hiring? I also have a new appreciation for the political process and how it differs from person to person, place to place. I want to visit Madison, Wisc., and Indianapolis, Ind., and maybe other neighboring states’ capitals, and someday Washington, D.C., to really experience the breadth and depth of government.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that no matter what your occupation, certain rules always apply. We all face tough decisions, but it is our role to choose what we believe is right.

Frank J. Kraut, a U.S. Army captain on active duty, is pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree at the School of Public Service.