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A Maryland legislative session without gray blazers: House and Senate pages to participate virtually in 2021

Baltimore resident Joe Quinn has held on to his name badge and lapel pin, mementos for the 32-year-old of an experience in the Maryland General Assembly more than a decade ago that inspired his career.

Quinn was a senior at Loyola Blakefield in Towson 2006 when the school bulletin advertised applications to be page in the state legislature. Come January, he was in Annapolis donning a gray blazer to navigate the floor of the House of Delegates, where he filled lawmakers’ bill books and coffee cups.

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His time in the halls of the State House prompted him to study political science in college and pursue a law degree. Quinn said there was just something about being in the chamber: the sound of debate, the sight of legislators afterward laughing like friends, the fact that their desks looked like his at school.

“It made government feel attainable,” he recalled.

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Now a public policy manager for the Exelon Corp., Quinn is among the ranks of ambitious pages who leveraged the experience into something more. Some of his peers got internships with lawmakers. Others carved out careers in communications or ran for elected office. One just launched a bid for state comptroller.

No matter their accolades, none of the past pages experienced what the 2021 class will: attending a legislative session on Zoom.

It’s a subtle side note to a meeting of the legislature expected to be different from any before because of the coronavirus pandemic. When leaders of the state’s House and Senate gavel in the session Jan. 13, lawmakers will focus on passing a budget and addressing issues such as education and police reform. But it will be a session marked throughout by masks and plastic barriers, one where lobbyists and activists won’t be allowed in from the first day.

Those familiar gray blazers will be missing, too. But the pages will still be watching.

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The pages have been a fixture of the legislature since 1970, when then-House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe, a Democrat from Talbot County, and state schools Superintendent James Sensenbaugh piloted the program in the House to show students how laws come to be. As The Evening Sun reported at the time, it was touted as a success and expanded a year later to both chambers.

In a normal year, pages still fetch coffee and copies for lawmakers, a surprising number of whom still rely on binders brimming with bills and amendments. But the mundane tasks come with unparalleled access to those elected to make laws. That’s made students rise to the occasion.

Baltimore resident Joe Quinn held on to his name badge and lapel pin, mementos for the 32-year-old of an experience as a page in the Maryland General Assembly more than a decade ago that inspired his career. Pages will participate virtually for the 2021 session.
Baltimore resident Joe Quinn held on to his name badge and lapel pin, mementos for the 32-year-old of an experience as a page in the Maryland General Assembly more than a decade ago that inspired his career. Pages will participate virtually for the 2021 session. (Joe Quinn/Handout)

But the coronavirus is a harsh reality that left Page Coordinator Tawana Offer to figure out how to run the program remotely for 2021. She’s come up with a curriculum that’ll see pages focus on the educational element — they can’t perform the same work as their predecessors — from their computers and smartphones.

Seniors slated to graduate from public or private high schools across the state, and who are at least 16, can apply to represent their counties. Usually 105 are accepted, along with 36 alternates. Annapolis residents house those who hail from far away When they’re not shuttling paperwork, pages roam Annapolis, sampling Navy basketball games, restaurants and ice skating. It’s equal parts education and sleepaway camp in a historic city.

“I was 18 years old and it was one of the first times I was away from my family in a city,” recalled Democratic Del. Brooke Lierman of Baltimore, who was a page in 1997. Lierman just announced her campaign for state comptroller.

Being awestruck by Annapolis is just one of a few experiences Offer had to acknowledge she couldn’t replicate online. Pages won’t run errands for lawmakers or bump into them in the halls. There will be no photo ops with the governor or trips to the top of the State House dome.

Their daily stipend has been reduced from $55 to $15, and is now more of an incentive for logging onto Zoom, Offer said. She was worried nobody would sign up.

But Offer has enrolled a group of 89 pages and 17 alternates. Every county and Baltimore City are represented.

Among them is Rachel Simpson, 17, a senior at the National Academy Foundation in Baltimore. She said her guidance counselor told her about the program and she filled out an application as her English teacher wrote a recommendation. Though she plans to go to college and become a chef, Simpson said she’s been interested in politics since her ninth grade history class.

She knew the program was going to be online, but signed up nonetheless. She said she’s a devoted student who’s always looking for educational activities to stay busy, especially when the alternative means being bored at home. This was a chance to learn.

“I still get to meet people in a way, even though it’s online. The experience is always worth it,” Simpson said. “And it’s something I can add to my resume.”

Del. Brooke Lierman, a Democrat from Baltimore, was a page in 1997.
Del. Brooke Lierman, a Democrat from Baltimore, was a page in 1997. (WilliamMoree.com / Baltimore Sun)

Simpson’s nervous about some of the same things her predecessors were worried about, like remembering all the lawmakers’ names, despite the fact that her experience is likely to be different.

“I definitely wish that I got to do it in person, but I’m going to stay about the positive side,” Simpson said.

Simpson and her peers will watch together on Zoom livestreamed floor sessions and committee hearings, Offer said. They will draft legislation and do mock debates about bills in two groups — one representing the Senate, the other the House. And while they won’t experience the behind-the-scenes banter of legislators, Offer lined up lawmakers to speak to the groups after each session to debrief about each day’s debate.

At least one delegate is on board already. Republican Del. Carl Anderton of Wicomico County said he’s looked forward to the moment every Friday when he gathered up the students in gray blazers to ask about their dreams and to tell them about his unusual path to Annapolis.

“We’re going to miss having pages there on different levels,” Anderton said. “For me personally, it’s just the interaction of having high school superstars from across the state. And then when you get one from your own district, it’s even more awesome.”

A handful of former pages told The Baltimore Sun they leveraged conversations with lawmakers into internships. Others got candid career advice.

They were hopeful the remote rendition of the program succeeds, but worried about what their successors would miss.

“I don’t know how well you can network and make connections on Zoom,” said Grant Handley, 20, a former page from Cecil County who’s now a junior at University of Maryland studying public policy.

Years ago, Quinn kept his pin because he was proud. Offer wants to make sure Quinn’s successors have something to hang on to as well. She came up with a long-sleeved T-shirt.

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It’s gray, like the blazers, and designed to look like one, too. It features the image of a pin on the lapel and a pocket patch with the Maryland flag.

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Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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