BARRINGTON – A group of students in Barrington High School's law and government classes received a lesson April 3 that went far beyond lectures and textbooks when they met state Reps. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, and Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago.
McSweeney and Mitchell cited the fact that they disagree so often as a reason for having the discussion.
"We have a great deal of respect for each other," Mitchell said. "We don't agree on a lot of the issues, but he invited me and it was an invitation I was excited to accept."
The representatives explained that in spite of their disagreements, they need one another. McSweeney said as part of the minority party in the House, he needs Democrats to vote for the bills he proposes. At the same time, Mitchell reminded students it is in his best interest to have a "strong and reasonable Republican Party" to allow him to collaborate.
Ty Gorman, the head of the social studies department at BHS, hosted the event and provided discussion topics during the visit.
The politicians discussed a number of issues, including the increasing costs of education, gun laws and pensions. Both answered a question from a student who asked how the lawmakers felt about banning "scary-looking" weapons.
McSweeney said he was fine with people owning assault weapons, but felt there should be changes to keep people from committing crimes with them.
"What I would like to do is increase the penalties for people who commit crimes while using a gun," he said. "I do favor background checks. We should have an instant data system that is fully up to date."
Mitchell, on the other hand, said he was in support of a ban on assault weapons as a matter of safety for law enforcement officers.
"What happens is our police force ends up out-gunned," he said.
His other major problem with gun laws was with the Firearms Owner Identification Program cards and how that system functions. He said 85 percent of calls to the FOID system are unanswered, and there is little enforcement when individuals break the rules that would result in losing their card.
Both representatives expressed concern over the $98 billion unfunded pension liability in Illinois, and the need to make changes. McSweeney apologized to the teachers in the room for the way the government has handled their pensions, and Mitchell said the state has mismanaged working people's money and that needs to change.
BHS senior Pat Pedersen took advantage of having the opportunity to ask questions of the lawmakers.
"I think that having the ability to talk to someone who has the opportunity to change something that's horribly unsustainable and completely insolvent is important," Pedersen said.
He added that he has always had an interest in politics and may follow that same career path someday.
Todd Kuklinski, Pedersen's government and politics teacher, said the event was a unique experience for students.
"It's one thing for me to lecture about it and have assignments about it and read about it and talk about it in the class, but to see true, live politicians at work and be able to interact with the kids is a huge thing for the kids," Kuklinski said.
At the end of the discussion, Gorman asked Mitchell and McSweeney what advice they would give the students.
"This is going to sound really, really corny, but do what makes you happy," said Mitchell, who at 25 wasn't much older than some of the students in the auditorium.
"Here's the thing: people look at government and politics and they're really cynical about it," he said. "They're like, 'It's really stupid, it doesn't pay enough money, everyone yells at each other, it's all talking points and nothing ever gets done and the only people who get into politics are selfish with gigantic egos.' ... The problem with that is if every one of you in the auditorium holds that view, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
McSweeney, a BHS grad himself, encouraged students to be engaged citizens.
"First of all, please vote no matter what," he said. "It's the greatest honor we have as a citizen."