Sean Butler makes an odd, stutter-step turn striding across the floor of the Arizona State Senate. Butler, a 19-year-old page, could be darting to the service of nearby Minority Leader Linda Aguirre or dodging the photographer’s lens.
But once outside the chamber, Butler says it’s more about the emblem at the head of the aisle.
“The Senate Seal is right there,” he says. “We’re trained, even as we cross the floor, not to walk on the Seal of the Senate. As a show of respect.”
Arizona’s 47th State Legislature has had its hands full since it convened last month: An ongoing battle over the English language learner bill and never-ending budget debates have had them burning the midnight oil in these opening weeks of the term. As the finer points of future laws get hammered out among the Senate, the House and Gov. Janet Napolitano’s office, they will travel — quite literally — on the legs of young people in navy blazers and khaki pants. They are men and women who stand on ceremony, work long hours and perform countless tasks in between.
Each day, they shoulder a variety of critical, menial and boring tasks so they can witness and facilitate the political process. Such is the life of a state Senate page.
GRUNT WORK AND GLORY
“What’s the hardest thing?”
Chandler’s Stefanie Cook, 19, ponders the question in the pages’ first-floor break room. With one arm in a sling (broken collarbone), she’s forking through a poppy-seed muffin in the 10 minutes before her Republican Caucus convenes, so she has a high threshold for “hard.” “Trying to keep everyone happy,” she says finally. “There are times when it seems like you’re balancing 10 errands. So there’s a lot of multitasking.”
Pages are usually in their late teens or early 20s. For $10 an hour, they become the bloodstream of the legislature.
“We look for people interested in the political process,” says Senate sergeant-at-arms Joseph Kubacki. “We get a lot of students because you can fit the schedule around classes.” The Senate keeps 18 pages on staff during its January-May legislative season. While the job offers “West Wing” moments — like backstage access to state political squabbles — those dramatic gems are buried within reams of grunt work.
The pages “understand they’re support staff,” says Kubacki. “We have eight pages standing when we take the Senate floor, but the rest of the time they’re pretty much gofers and errand runners.” Pages have specific subcommittee and caucus assignments “so they can become familiar with the senators, their routines and their needs during the day.”
Cook and another page set Phoenix Sen. Dean Martin’s laptop up at the Republican Caucus Room table, then sit under the clock as it clicks nine and the senators file in. Cook, a political science major at Phoenix College, must stay focused as majority members dissect, debate and strategize. She must look past the Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimates and descriptions of pending legislation, watching instead for a senator’s hand, a cleared throat or a nod-over. In the 2 1 /2-hour meeting, she is up seven times: An errand for Sen. Toni Hellon of Tucson/ Marana; a summons for Butler to adjust the temperature in the caucus room thermostat; four times she fetches drinks.
“It’s hard, at first,” she confesses. “I’m here because I care about politics.” But Cook believes her work keeps the lawmakers on task: Facilitating discussion so ideas can take shape. “In our own way, we’re part of the process,” she says. When the senators adjourn to meet on the Senate floor, Cook makes certain that Gilbert Sen. Thayer Verschoor’s papers meet him down there.
SCHLEPPING AND CEREMONY
“This will probably go quickly,” Butler says as the Senate’s 30 members filter in for their 11:30 a.m. floor session.
After the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, members welcome gallery visitors, exchange casual jibes and vote on six bills. At the dais, a “reader” page drones through bill summaries with the speed of a Propecia disclaimer.
“The senators already know what’s coming up,” says Kubacki. “This is just to announce them one more time.”
All the while, Butler and seven other pages hover like palace guards in the shadows of the chamber’s timbered walls, cross-armed and silent. “We try to stay invisible,” says Butler.
Discreetly perched between the portraits of past senators, they move quickly and quietly to deliver or dispatch messages at the senators’ request. This most visible duty is also a page’s least strenuous. The floor session adjourns shortly after noon, giving Butler half an hour to bring Sen. Robert Cannell’s laptop to his office and grab a sandwich before preparing his subcommittee room for the 1:30 p.m. hearings.
A page’s day begins at 8:30 a.m., with newspaper and mail distribution, and goes to 5:30 p.m. — or as late as the law allows. Last week, as senators were up until 3 a.m. thrashing out a response to the governor’s English language learners veto, their pages were right there with them.
“It’s not unusual to have breakfast, lunch and dinner all in the same place,” Butler jokes. A Phoenix native and Paradise Valley Community College student, Butler aspires to a political career one day and savors this chance to learn on the fly.
“It’s a great learning experience,” he says. “Last semester, they discussed state issues in my political science class. But I know what goes on. I see how a bill goes through committee, with all the discussions and amendments. I see all the work you don’t think about.”
Every agency seeking state funding goes through the Senate appropriations room. Butler gets there first: Setting up laptops and overhead projectors, checking microphones, posting agendas and distributing copies 30 minutes before the proceedings begin. For the next three hours, Butler manages traffic through the crowded hearing room: Directing visitors, providing handouts and extra chairs, keeping the senators plied with outside messages, pertinent paperwork or soft drinks from the cantina upstairs.
Pages sign an oath to be discreet about Senate proceedings, and govern themselves with a calm, bipartisan demeanor that is an ongoing point of pride.
“It’s hard, but you make your job and your feelings two different things,” says Cook. “If a bill we like passes, we can’t be happy about it. I think a certain way. I vote a certain way, but no one here would know it.”
She chuckles. “When I get in my car, and turn on my radio, that’s where I evoke my emotion.”