A week after they were sworn in as New Hampshire state representatives in a ceremony at the historic Concord statehouse in December, three UNH undergraduates returned to the university's Manchester and Durham campuses for their fall-semester final exams. D.J. Bettencourt, Michael Brunelle and Nickolas Levasseur believe they can bring a fresh perspective to the third largest parliamentary body in the English-speaking world.
"Old school politicians talk in terms of the way things should be," says Levasseur. "I want to focus on the way things are." He may be a freshman in the legislature, but the Democrat from Manchester's 4th Ward is also a senior majoring in microbiology at UNH-Manchester, and he hopes to apply the science he has learned in the classroom to real-world issues related to water treatment, land use, and industrial waste.
The three young legislators actually have a surprising amount of political experience. Bettencourt, a 22-year-old Republican from Salem, is starting his second term in the legislature. And 21-year-old Mike Brunelle, a UNH-Manchester senior majoring in history with a minor in political science, has already been at the political game long enough to have made a comeback. Although he lost his first bid for state representative by 100 votes at the age of 18, that didn't stop him from pursuing his passion on campus and in his community. "I enjoy spirited debates," says the Manchester Democrat. The host of a political talk show, The Bottom Line with Mike Brunelle, on the UNHM.net experimental Web radio channel and a former UNH-Manchester student body president, he went on to become Manchester Democratic Party Executive Director in charge of running election campaigns for 35 House seats in 2006. Brunelle not only won his second run for office by 600 votes, but also steered 28 other Democrats, including his own mother, Sandra Smith, to victory in the 10th Ward Manchester Super District.
Being both a student and a legislator does require a high level of organization--and energy. "Running for office and winning," says Levasseur, who got married in May 2006, "was an absolutely great experience. But balancing the demands of final exams, meeting with caucuses, and spending time with my wife--keeping my mind straight and on-task--has been a real challenge."
Bettencourt has the added challenge of representing a district that's farther away from Concord. He spends two days a week at the statehouse, shuttles between committee meetings and classes on the Durham campus (where he keeps an apartment) the other three weekdays, and returns to his home in Salem on weekends to work with constituents. "It's a busy, disciplined life," he acknowledges.
In his junior year at UNH, Bettencourt is pursuing a double major in political science and communications with a minor in philosophy. Although he used to be athletic, he says he has found a new outlet for his competitive nature. "Politics offers a way for me to compete on both an academic and professional level about the things I really care about-education funding, elderly and child healthcare," he explains. "I know these aren't standard Republican issues, but these are the issues I care about-as well as preserving the New Hampshire advantage."
As for Brunelle, he says he's having the time of his life. "My only regret is that I miss out on so much campus life."
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