All rise: Hartselle girl elected governor of Girls State; delegate to Girls Nation
By Catherine Godbey
Photos by John Godbey and contributed
It took an hour to tabulate the votes. After a week of handing out “Samantha Simmons for Girls State Governor” slap bracelets, spending every meal introducing herself to the other girls and answering questions about everything from the formula shortage to abortion to the devastation caused by COVID, now all the Hartselle High senior could do was wait.
“The hour spent counting the votes was the longest hour of my life,” the 17-year-old Simmons said. “When they announced I had won, I started crying. Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to win. You go there and it’s imposter syndrome. There are so many qualified girls. It makes me really appreciate Alabama as a whole because we’ve fostered so many great young women and their voices.”
Along with serving as governor of the 80th session of the American Legion Auxiliary’s Alabama Girls State, Simmons was selected as one of Alabama’s two delegates to Girls Nation. The prestigious weeklong Girls Nation, consisting of 100 delegates, two from each state, began Saturday in Washington D.C.
“I am so humbled and so grateful for this entire experience,” Simmons said.
For Simmons, who plans to pursue a career in law, applying for Girls State seemed like a logical choice.
“I love activism, I love debating, I love politics and I love journalism. Girls State is a combination of all of those things. It really was a no-brainer,” Simmons said.
A hands-on learning experience, Girls State provides rising high school seniors with an up-close view into the inner workings of the government.
“We re-create our governmental systems on the city, county and state level and elect officials for all those roles,” said Decatur attorney Julia Smeds Roth, who attended Georgia’s Girls State program and Girls Nation and served as a counselor last month at Alabama’s Girls State. “The girls who run for office have platforms and goals they want to achieve.”
More than 350 girls, including Simmons — who was selected by Hartselle’s American Legion Auxiliary — attended the statewide event held June 5-10 at Troy University.
Two months before the session, Simmons began planning her run for governor.
“This isn’t something you just show up to and hope for the best. This had to be a calculated effort,” Simmons said. “After a meeting where a former Girls State delegate showed us the ins and outs of campaigning, my mom and I went to Target and Hobby Lobby. We spent days making 90-something fans and slap bracelets to hand out.”
Simmons also prepared her platforms: cut the gas tax, update hospital infrastructure and provide extra aid for schools with disadvantaged students.
“They were all bipartisan issues I knew most of the girls would support,” Simmons said.
To win the nomination of her party, the Nationalists, Simmons fielded two political questions in front of her party’s delegates.
“All of the candidates were standing outside the auditorium and then we walked in one-by-one. At first there is an overwhelming fear when you’re on the stage. You feel your throat close for a second. Then you look at the audience and it’s the best feeling. I’ve always loved public speaking,” Simmons said.
For the general election, Simmons met with small groups of delegates, talked about her platform and answered their questions.
“Being elected governor was a bigger deal than I realized. It wasn’t just a culmination of the two months of prepping, it was the culmination of the four years of continuous research, journalism, debate and being part of the Student Government Association,” Simmons said.
As governor she appointed delegates to different positions and met with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who attended the program in 1962.Even as she handled her duties as governor, Simmons sat for her Girls Nation interview in front of women who attended Girls Nation.
“They were all very prestigious women. They asked, ‘Who would you want to meet with dead or alive?’ I talked about Thomas Paine because of journalism. ‘What’s a pressing domestic issue?’ Violence against women. ‘What’s a pressing national issue?’ Political polarization. ‘What’s a pressing international issue?’ Pacific trade agreement and our relationship with China,” Simmons recalled.
Among the women interviewing the candidates was Roth.
“At the end of her interview I turned to my group and said, ‘There’s no doubt she’s the smartest girl in the room,’” Roth said, taking a line from “Hamilton.” “For Girls Nation we’re looking for a girl that will represent Alabama in the best way possible, is articulate, cares about issues and is not an ideologue. We feel Samantha is gracious and smart and well spoken. We think she’ll do really well.”
The announcement of the Girls Nation delegates took place the final day of Girls State.
“They announced the alternates, the other girl who is going and then they said my name. I had to try hard to not tear up. What are the odds? Over 300 girls went to Girls State and I am one of two going to Girls Nation. It is very humbling,” Simmons said.
Joining Simmons at Girls Nation is Athens High senior Christina Jones.
One of the first people to congratulate Simmons was the Hartselle High debate coach Kelly Cimino.
“I was not surprised with what Samantha achieved. She is smart but kind, a true leader and genuinely seeks the best for everyone,” Cimino said. “Her peers recognize in her, her sharpness, but also her compassion.”
Simmons credited her time on the debate team and as editor and chief-of-staff of Hartselle High’s newspaper as helping prepare her for Girls State and Girls Nation.
“Being on the newspaper staff and debate team has kept me aware of current events,” Simmons said. “The debate club also prepared me to answer questions on the spot. I’ve debated everything from ‘Was math discovered or invented?’ to the death penalty to nuclear energy resources.”
In addition to Cimino, Simmons found inspiration, support and encouragement from her parents, Jimmy and Debbie Simmons.
“My mom is very inspirational. She came from a single-parent household and was the first person in her family to go to college. She’s very impressive,” Simmons said. “Both of my parents are why I’m the person I am. When I called them and told them I was elected governor, they both started crying.”
During the weeklong Girls Nation experience, the delegates are visiting Capitol Hill, meeting with their senators and representatives, debating bills and running for office.
Simmons is eyeing a run for president.
“I’m very nervous. The imposter syndrome is kicking in, but I will just do the best I can do and hopefully make Alabama proud,” Simmons said.
After high school, Simmons, who is a member of the National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, Student Government Association, the debate team, newspaper staff, ambassadors program, chorus and theater, plans on majoring in communications and leadership before pursuing a career in law.