Buffalo high school student Pierre Harper says he has no interest in politics.
That's a shame. With the kind of appeal he exhibited at the American Legion Boys State camp last month, Pierre has the makings of a winning candidate.
When Pierre, 16, arrived at the State College of Agriculture and Technology at Morrisville for the weeklong camp, which is designed to teach high school students about America, its government and the military, he just hoped to meet people and have fun.
He left as only the second Erie County youth in the camp's 59-year history to be elected governor, a prestigious honor among American Legion folks.
Not bad for someone without ambition to hold public office -- especially, says Pierre, considering that out of the 1,001 who attended the event June 28 to July 3, only about 30 were black.
"When I first got there, I didn't like it because the people, at first, didn't know me; they were like, 'Oh, he's black,' " Pierre said in an interview. "But then, after people got to know me and I made a lot of friends, everything worked out well."
After his initial discomfort, he was aided in adjusting to Boys State because of his friendships with students from diverse backgrounds at Buffalo Traditional School, he says.
"Everybody at Boys State is from different parts of New York State -- you got people who do nothing but milk cows all day; you got people who live in the inner city," he said. "You have to learn how to adapt to all situations, and I think that's what got me through."
Boys State is part military academy, part political summer camp. The American Legion volunteers who run it divide the boys into two mock political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists. The boys are placed into 10 counties of 100 each, with three cities to a county. To learn about politics, they run for offices such as mayor and county executive.
As governor, Pierre had final say on the mock legislation passed at Boys State, such as a bill giving more money to education or a contentious measure on AIDS research. He also had a few extra perquisites.
"I really felt like the real governor," he said. "I had my own secret service and everything, because people can walk up to you and take your button and you're assassinated."
For the last two years, Pierre has been a drill sergeant in the ROTC program at Buffalo Traditional and has been active with Sons of Kings Academy on Broadway, a program that uses military discipline and training to teach youngsters respect and discipline.
Pierre was pushed for governor by his peers partly because of his military background, after the Marines who help run Boys State made him a leader, or "guide," of his county. "I love the military lifestyle; I want to be a Marine more than anything in the world," he said. "I bonded with the Marines there real quick, after they pushed me into the ground a couple of times."
After five days as a guide, Pierre was elected governor by a whopping 800 votes to 200.
George Lewis, chairman of Buffalo's Bennett-Wells Post 1780 and Pierre's sponsor, talked about Pierre's ability to make a sharp impression on everybody, from the other Boys State students to the American Legion officials who ran the statewide conference.
"When I first talked with him, I just got the feeling that I had a winner," Lewis said. "There was just something about his persona."
As Pierre enters his senior year, his week at Boys State will stay a big part in his life. The American Legion people told him that they would help him get into his first choice of college -- not surprisingly, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
And he plans on staying in touch with his 1,000 new friends.
"They'll be my friends for the rest of my life," he says.
"I don't look at the Boys State guys as kids or normal people; I look at them as brothers. Anybody who can come together in a matter of days and work together so tightly knit, it was wonderful."