A Day Spent in the Senate
From the Albany Times Union
By Tim O'Brien
ALBANY -- Latin American college students from across the state got a chance to sit in the seat of a state senator Saturday.
About 70 students from city and state university campuses participated in the Somos Legislative Conference. For 15 years, students have been assigned to represent a Senate district, study a specific piece of legislation and then take to the Senate floor to debate.
While the students use their own names, they are supposed to represent the district and political party of the real senator. This year, they debated an actual bill that called for a five-member independent commission to redraw legislative district boundaries.
"They have to take on the roles of their assigned senators," said Jay Hershenson, chancellor for university relations for the City University of New York. "If you're a Democrat from Queens, you may have to take on the role of a Republican from Plattsburgh."
Four University at Albany students participated: John-Raphael Pichardo, 20, a junior from Poughkeepsie; Gertrude Chidyausiku, 21 a senior from Westchester; Emmanuel Capellan, 18, a freshman from Westchester; and Julissa Rosado, 20, a junior from the Bronx.
"I love this experience because it allows me to see how important it is to be a Latina and to be in government," Rosado said. "I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. It kind of changed my mind."
Octavia Anderson, 19, of Malvern sat in Sen. Neil Breslin's seat. "I really learned a lot, to make sure to get involved and talk to my local politicians," she said.
Gloria Colon, 22, a LaGuardia Community College sophomore, served as majority leader. The Islip native, now a Bronx resident, is studying political science and international relations. She also is an intern with Assemblyman Marcos Crespo of the Bronx.
"He's a Democrat, and he gave me some pointers on how to counter them," she said with a laugh.
Her LaGuardia classmate, Christen Sanchez-Narvaez, 20, was minority leader.
"It was an amazing experience," the Queens native said. "I learned that the more you are knowledgeable about the issue, the more information you have on the issue, the more you'll stand out."
State Sen. Jack Martins of Mineola, the son of Portuguese immigrants, became the first Republican to visit the conference in its 15-year history.
"Giving them a different perspective is important," he said. "I happen to think these events are very important, and I plan to be here as often as I can."
Over the years, some 1,000 students have gone through the program. One, Jose Peralta of Queens, is now an actual state senator.
"I was representing a Republican district. As someone who grew up with Democratic ideals, it was eye-opening for me," he recalled.
Peralta is the only graduate of the program to hold a seat in the state Legislature. "I may have been the first," he said, "but I definitely don't want to be the last."