RFHS senior follows political aspirations, selected for Senate Scholars

By Sarah Nigbor
Posted 2/28/24

RIVER FALLS – A River Falls High School senior is already making connections in politics, thanks to his participation in the non-partisan Wisconsin Senate Scholars program, designed for high …

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RFHS senior follows political aspirations, selected for Senate Scholars


RIVER FALLS – A River Falls High School senior is already making connections in politics, thanks to his participation in the non-partisan Wisconsin Senate Scholars program, designed for high school juniors and seniors who want to learn what goes on in their state government.

Perry Kotz was among 33 students across the state selected for the program through a rigorous application process, and the only one from western Wisconsin.

According to Sen. Jeff Smith, who sponsored Kotz in the program, Senate Scholars spend an entire week learning and participating in all facets of the legislative process. They meet with their senator and staff, legislative support agencies, the press, lobbyists, representatives, the executive branch, the judicial branch, and many others who work within state government. Scholars are allowed on the Senate floor while the Senate is in session.

“The week’s activities culminate in a mock legislative hearing at which Senate Scholars provide and obtain testimony and then hold an executive session to vote a bill out of committee,” Smith said.

Admission into the program is highly competitive, Smith said. Each week-long session hosts 11 students from around the state. Kotz almost missed his chance to go when the invitation to apply ended up in his spam folder.

“Funny enough, it (the invite) was sent to the spam folders of every single person who went to Badger Boys State. It was marked as spam for some reason,” Kotz said. “I saw it and thought ‘that looks like a great opportunity.’”

Kotz said the process included a 31-page application with tests on Wisconsin history, an essay on how a student would fit into the Senate Scholar program and benefit from it, a sponsorship from a state senator, a resume and cover letter, and a second essay describing different legislative committees and how they help Wisconsin state politics.

“Then I submitted it by mail, which is one of the old-fashioned things they do,” Kotz said.

About one month later, he learned he’d been accepted into the program and picked the session in which he would participate. He chose Jan. 11-16.

“It was more tedious than difficult,” Kotz said. “It definitely helped me to sharpen up on some of my knowledge and I definitely feel more prepared to do stuff like this when it comes to the business and political world.”

RFHS Principal Kit Luedtke and Spanish teacher Christine Engel also provided him with letters of recommendation.

Not every teen loves politics, but Kotz does. It’s his passion. This opportunity allowed him to learn more about state politics and see how the state government functions more thoroughly. It also afforded him the chance to make important face-to-face connections that will help him in the future.

While in Madison, Kotz and his fellow scholars stayed at the Madison Concourse Hotel near the capitol. He thoroughly enjoyed meeting other students and said they were fun to be around.

“I definitely got to broaden my scope of opinions,” Kotz said. “I don’t always get to debate people that are that passionate about politics that often.”

He connected not only with Smith, but Civics Education Coordinator Dr. Tammy Wehrle; Henry Pahlow, the national vice-chair of the High School Democrats of America, the Kwik Trip lobbyist, lawyers with the Legislative Reference Bureau and Gov. Tony Evers.

“We met people who work for different senators and asked them a bunch of questions,” Kotz said. “On Tuesday, we met lawyers with the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), which was established in 1903. They write up laws according to certain parameters so we have uniformity.”

While at the Governor’s mansion, Senate Scholars were served a three-course meal and spoke to the governor’s chef. Once fortified with a hearty meal, they got to work.

Starting with the LRB, the scholars drafted a bill on blood donation, a topic chosen for them. They were given testimony from different (not real) interest groups and people.

“Essentially the proposal was to lower the donation age to age 14,” Kotz said. “I was in the majority party so I was trying to get that through. Three groups made three bills and we voted on which one to bring to committee, where we heard actual witness testimonies (from acting Senate pages) and asked them questions. They played along perfectly with their role.”

Kotz’s colleagues elected him to chair their committee, which he loved. As current president of the Martell Rushers 4-H Club, his knowledge gleaned there came in handy.

“I used my experience in 4-H to win the race because I already knew parliamentary procedure,” Kotz said. “We worked for a good six hours on each bill, so it was pretty good work. We worked directly with the lawyers to make sure it was worded exactly like the real bill.”

When they weren’t working on their own legislation, the scholars were able to act as Senate pages for one of the session days. Kotz said while state senators don’t put on a show for TV as much as US senators and representatives do, seeing them in person humanized them.

“I got to see them as people instead of just the policies they endorsed,” Kotz said. “Watching the debate on gerrymandering, Sen. Smith spoke on it and it was one of the best speeches I had ever heard in person. It’s a weird multi-faceted issue, and the democrats voted against it because they were worried the Republicans were going to pull a fast one. The bill was super long and at the end of the bill they added a couple of clauses that would make it so the bill wouldn’t enact for a couple of special sessions.”

Kotz said acting as a Senate page was a highlight of the trip. He enjoyed the Senate debates more because they seemed more concrete, while the Assembly debates were a “lot more emotional and story-based.”

“It was fun to feel like you’re part of the Senate and helping things move along and seeing how fast it goes is kind of surprising. They kind of blow through everything because of time constraints,” Kotz said.

Everything came full circle for Kotz’s experience upon his return when he was able to witness Gov. Evers sign into law Monday, Feb. 19 the Fair Legislative Voting Maps at Hop & Barrel in Hudson. All these opportunities have motivated Kotz to pursue his dream.

“I’m going to use this experience to get the proper connections,” Kotz said. “My final goal is to be a legislator someday myself. I like the idea of campaigning and making change. I’m planning a time to have lunch with Sen. Smith and talk about policy. This program helped to solidify that I really do want to be in politics. I liked it as an abstract idea, and knew how it worked on a most basic level, but seeing it in real life helped me understand the whole scope of it.”

Kotz believes other students should take part in the Senate Scholars program, even if they’re not planning a career in politics.

“It’s important to know how things work so you’re able to have more knowledge of the system so you can have the system help you more effectively,” Kotz said. “It also humanizes the people who are making laws for you and you just see people on TV and how people think of them. For example, I met Sen. Bradley. I don’t agree with him on anything, but he was the nicest guy in the world.

“It makes people be able to have more understanding of what is going on and why. Being able to actively participate in local government, it helps your voice to have more power so your needs and others’ are represented. If you are looking to go into politics, you should 100% check this out.”

He also recommends contacting your local party to find volunteer opportunities. In fact, he’s running an Instagram account for one currently.

To learn more about the Senate Scholars program, visit https://legis.wisconsin.gov/ssgt/senatescholar/site-menu/overview-and-eligibility/

Wisconsin Senate Scholars, Perry Kotz, River Falls High School, politics, government