NEW MADRID - In four days, admits Natalie Hunter, she learned more about the workings of government, the intricacies of public policy and even prime time television than she learned in four years of college classes.
Like many of the 88 Missouri delegates attending the Democratic National Convention in Boston last week, Hunter was serving for the first time as a delegate. However, while the majority of the delegation was 45 years or older, Hunter, 23, was one of four state delegates between the ages of 18 and 24.
The New Madrid native's road to the national convention began at home. The daughter of Craig and Timmie Lynn Hunter, her grandfather, Hal E. Hunter Jr., and her aunt, Lora Little, were the last national convention delegates from New Madrid, serving in 1972; her uncle Hal E. "Buck" Hunter III is the county's Democratic chairman.
Nominated as a delegate for John Kerry at the county level, Hunter attended the district convention in mid-March with her uncle. Her uncle, knowing his niece's interest in politics, encouraged her to seek election as a state delegate.
Watching his niece make her speech before the delegates, Buck Hunter said her enthusiasm was evident. "She made a talk about her experiences as a volunteer, mainly for Mel Carnahan. She showed that youthful exuberance us older Democrats are looking for and haven't been able to find," he recalled. "I was kind of pleasantly surprised that the membership took to her so well."
The delegates voted on her and another dozen women. When Hunter tied for the spot, there was second round of voting; this time she won the post as the district's only female Kerry delegate.
From the district, it was on to the state convention at the end of March where she met the rest of the delegation heading to Boston.
While it is an honor to serve as a delegate, it also can be costly. Each delegate pays for their travel, accommodations and food for the minimum four night stay. However, Hunter noted their travel to and from the airport was paid for and the state had various sponsors who provided their breakfast each morning.
The breakfasts were also rallies to start their political days. "We had great speakers. We got to hear Ben Affleck (I got to have my picture taken with him). General Wesley Clark spoke to us, too," said Hunter
That wasn't all the perks, either. There were free concerts and a harbor cruise and luncheon where she watched Kerry's plane land at the Boston airport. Also Hunter, who is currently working on the campaign for Arkansas Democratic Congressman Vic Snider, attended a baseball game with the Arkansas Democratic delegates.
But for Hunter, the highlight was the convention. It literally put her at center stage for the four-day event when she was chosen to be among the delegates seated on the podium.
"I don't know how we were chosen but the theme was 'These people are the faces of America' and there were all kinds of different people - a single mother, union workers, all kinds of different nationalities. It was the most diverse group of people I have ever been with," she explained.
From 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Hunter took her seat up front and watched the convention play out in front of her. "That was a really cool experience," she said. "We were on TV for 30 minutes of prime time."
From her seat, Hunter said she watched the crowd react to speakers at the podium. And while she admits she is not one to watch hour after hour of political speeches, this gave her the opportunity to hear some of the party's leading Democrats ranging from John Edwards to Al Sharpton, from Barack Obama to John Kerry.
"I was really proud to see so many Democrats united for one cause ... Everyone got along, everyone was working for the same goal: to secure the election for Kerry and Edwards. And there were no negative attacks," said Hunter. "It sure rejuvenated my interest in politics."
About the only downside to her experience, according to Hunter, was not being able to be on the floor with her delegation during the final evening of the convention. Due to security and an already-packed house, it took her almost two hours to be reseated after leaving the stage.
But overall, she gave the experience an A-plus.
"Until now I never really understood the entire process of how a political party chooses a candidate and how the people have a voice in it," said Hunter. "This was an experience of a lifetime."
Now back at work on her Congressman's campaign, Hunter said the national election continues to be important. Just down the street from her office in Little Rock, a Kerry-Edwards campaign headquarters has opened and she plans to volunteer there.
"The whole experience has been pretty cool," she said. "But now that the fun stuff is over it is time to buckle down and work."