All’s fair in love and simulated Congress

CMC professor Jack Pitney teaches a Congress simulation course, which yields an unusually large amount of student marriages. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

Romance and politics don’t often go hand-in-hand. It’s hard to imagine a concept less steamy than legislation, or an environment less sexy than Congress. And yet, in the aisles of a simulated Congress debating real politics at Claremont McKenna College, love blossomed. Several times.

To date, six engagements and weddings have transpired between alumni of Professor Jack Pitney’s U.S. Congress class. The latest relationship to be announced is between Heath Hyatt CM ’12 and Katie Rodihan CM ’14.

Pitney recalls that both former students took more than just his U.S. Congress class — in fact, they met in his public policy class. They embody a pattern true of most students, he says, who enroll in his Congress offering: ambitious, politically passionate, up to date. Since graduating, Hyatt, Rodihan, and many other Pitney alumni have gone on to work on political campaigns, both local and national.

A singular type of person tends to be drawn to the Congress simulation, Pitney adds. It’s a voluntary gauntlet that attracts people of similar intensities — a “certain esprit de corps,” as Pitney put it. Or, as he later stated: “A large chunk of the class is political junkies.”

Perhaps there’s a compatibility in matched passions. If there is, Pitney suggests that the crucible of the Congress simulation may help forge it.

The simulation is only one week of the class, but Pitney considers it the centerpiece. It’s why students sign up, and every enrolling student knows what they’re in for. Pitney likens the simulation to “entering the matrix.”

He said, “Something in it feels real.”

Students assume the identities of standing members of Congress and debate real issues as if they were, say, Dianne Feinstein or Mitch McConnell. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster (or at least very, very heated discourse), it almost is. According to Pitney, the simulation produces intense student interactions in both good and bad ways.

But the important thing is that the experiences stick with these people for the rest of their lives. Pitney has kept in touch with students for years after they graduate throughout decades of teaching. Among the students who emerge, these lasting ties could be a bonding agent of sorts.

Sarah Malott CM ’19 took Pitney’s class last fall. Not an aspiring politician, aide, or anything of the sort herself, she found the class through a friend’s recommendation. She enrolled, intrigued by the class and charmed by Pitney, who she called a “really eccentric but really enthusiastic guy.”

She recalls the most heated class wasn’t specifically the simulation itself, but rather during its lead-up. Having chosen and researched a senator to roleplay, the students were to create faux Twitter accounts where they would tweet as the real John McCoy would.

“There was one point where fake John McCain started hate-tweeting me,” she said, laughing. “It was pretty funny.”

Faux partisanship begat real passion. “Everyone was super, super into their role,” she said. Even now, well after the end of the class, she still greets her fellow “senators” as such.

As for relationships within her simulation? She can’t remember definitively.

“I feel like there was,” she said. At the very least, she saw a potential — one that has continued to be realized over the years for increasingly clear reasons.

“It really was a bonding experience,” she said.

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