Geneseo native governor of Model Illinois Government education program

Posted Online: Feb. 14, 2014, 9:21 pm
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By Lisa Hammer,
One Illinois "governor" recently told a candidate for real governor not to let politics get him down.

Geneseo native Zachary Sullivan, a graduate student at the University of Illinois-Springfield, is governor of this year's Model Illinois Government, a simulation held each spring in Springfield for 250 to 300 students from 30 state colleges and universities to learn the process of state government through hands-on learning.

Students take on the roles of legislators, lobbyists, attorneys, journalists and financial analysts, and debate actual bills presented to the Illinois General Assembly.

Mr. Sullivan said he saw gubernatorial candidate Dan Rutherford at a Lincoln Day event on Tuesday and encouraged him to stand up to allegations of misconduct and not run away from the race.

"That's Illinois politics," Mr. Sullivan said. "It's no secret Illinois politics is a hardball game and it can be a dirty game, too ... You have to rise above it. That's how success happens; you don't let the distractions get to you."

This is Mr. Sullivan's fourth year in Model Illinois Government. He was Senate president at last year's event, where he was elected governor for this year, getting more than 70 percent of the vote.

"I believe in this organization and the educational value it gives to the students of Illinois," he said. "It's humbling to me that so many students believe in me and my ability to run this organization."

This year's Model Illinois Government will be held Feb. 27 through March 2 in the capitol complex. Mr. Sullivan's role as governor includes keeping student officers on task, working as a liaison between the MIG and faculty advisers, and meeting college students throughout the state.

"I have friends' couches to sleep on anywhere I go in this state, probably for the rest of my life," he said with a laugh.

Ms. Sullivan assigns participants to political parties and committees, trying to accommodate their preferences, but trying to reflect the actual partisan politics that exists in real life.

The two chambers select the bills for each MIG event in September to give delegates time to prepare. Most are real-life bills, but students can write their own.

Mr. Sullivan said that being forced to argue a point of view in opposition to one's genuine perspective makes a person "ambidextrous" and is a great way to learn debate. "It helps them with their research, too," he said.

As governor, Mr. Sullivan picked two-time MIG governor Scott McFarland, a Quad-Cities native, to give this year's keynote speech. He said five of the last eight MIG governors have Quad-Cities' roots. "It seems like a bit of an anomaly to me, but I'm among good company in that group," he said.

Mr. Sullivan said he may veto the concealed-carry bill the federal court required Illinois to pass, noting that his real-life inclination is to be pro-gun. He said he had to argue against guns when he role-played as a Democratic legislator from Chicago.

"I learned that I can argue against gun bills very effectively, because I know all their arguments," he said. "It drives me a little crazy saying things I have to say, but that's the value of a simulation. So yeah, that's been fun."

Mr. Sullivan said he plans to suspend legislative "pay," including his own, until pension reform is passed.

He said he worked three years on a bill to create a state dog and cat, to be chosen by Illinois students. The bill met with success last year after his 10-year-old daughter, Jenna, who helped him write the bill, argued it on the Senate floor.

"It's got to be my proudest moment in Model Illinois Government," he said, adding that it unanimously passed in the Senate, got only a few "no" votes in the House and was signed by the then governor. He said MIG also has approved a state amphibian and state snack (popcorn).

At a national student governor's event in Nashville last fall, Mr. Sullivan got an idea for putting student videos from this year's MIG on YouTube.

At 32, Mr. Sullivan is a non-traditional student, who returned to college after working eight years for a Geneseo firearms manufacturer.

He's been in an accelerated bachelor's and master's program at the University of Illinois-Springfield since August, 2011, to get finished by this spring. He got a bachelor's degree in political science last spring, graduating magna cum laude.

Mr. Sullivan is currently a graduate assistant and expects to graduate with a master's in political science in May. He's looking forward to coming home to the Quad-Cities.

He's lived apart from his daughter and girlfriend, Michele, for three years, skyping with them nightly and returning home most weekends.

Despite the "huge" financial setback of a college degree, Mr. Sullivan said he encourages people to go to college.

"It can open tons of doors. I'm experiencing it right now," he said. "It might sound cliche, but follow your dreams. Hard work and perseverance pay off. When I quit my job, it wasn't part of my plan to get involved with Model Illinois Government and ultimately become governor, but it kind of shows what you can accomplish. If you put your mind to something, you can accomplish anything."

He got his associate's degree in 2011 from Black Hawk College, where political science professor Joan Eastlund urged him to get involved in MIG. "Four years later, I ended up being governor, so I guess you can say I like it a little bit," he said.

In April, he'll participate in a model United Nations event in New York in conjunction with his university work as a graduate assistant and co-instructor of the Model United Nations course.

Mr. Sullivan said he isn't ruling out real elected office in the future but plans first to teach political science at the high school or community college level or maybe work in city administration.

He said he interned with former teacher and state Rep. Rich Morthland, whom he called a great example of someone with a true passion for teaching. "I'd love to follow those kinds of footsteps."


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