Monday, Jan. 21, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The presidential inauguration is an opportunity for D.C. top brass to put American democracy on parade and for many of the commander in chief’s staunchest to celebrate a victory.
But for many, it’s also a good reason to make a first trip to the nation’s capital.
About a dozen students from the College of Southern Nevada are doing just that — they came to D.C. a week before the inauguration to gorge themselves on Washington, absorbing as much as they can in the week before the inauguration.
“I knew that this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Brandon Gepford, 20. “It’s history; it’s not going to happen again.”
Gepford and his compatriots had to foot the bill themselves to get to Washington, where they spent the past weekend sitting in on proceedings in the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, meeting with members of the Nevada delegation and representatives of the state in D.C., and taking a side trip to Gettysburg, Pa., before inauguration day.
“There’s been five or six things to do a day; we get like four hours of sleep a night,” said Breyon Miller, 20. “It’s well worth it, though.”
They get credit for it, in fact — three credits, which can count toward a degree in everything from political science to business management. The director of this course and tour leader, Mark Peplowski, actually brings students here every year — though usually there’s no promise of an inauguration. He’s trying to turn the trip into an anchor for a campaign management degree program that will soon come up for review with the Nevada Board of Regents.
“Most of the political operatives of any note we have parachuted into Nevada; they come from another state,” Peplowski said. “Every year we get these parachuters because we’re not training our own.
“This trip is a motivator to many. They get Potomac fever and they say: 'Wow. I’ve got to get into this. I’ve got to be a part of it.'”
There’s not really much academic instruction involved in the trip, though most of the students had absorbed a good amount of knowledge about the political process from previous political science courses and having survived another election season as residents of a high-profile swing state.
“I volunteered for the Obama campaign, and I absolutely loved it,” said Emily Sandoval, 21, who said making a first trip to D.C. seemed like the natural next step. “The first time that I saw Obama speak in Nevada was historical. So now, being at the inauguration is going to be great.”
But Sandoval and many of her fellow travelers were just as excited about the everyday parts of D.C. they had witnessed — rating a Supreme Court case and viewing the House of Representatives pass a procedural precursor to Hurricane Sandy relief as their biggest takeaways.
Miller, a business management and aviation major, said she had some idea about the congressional process because her parents, who “own a few businesses,” are “often talking in the background about how certain tax laws are affecting them.”
“But before, it was just like, 'OK, that passed, OK,' but you actually start realizing everything that goes into it,” Miller said. “And the process is a lot more laid back than I thought it would be once everybody is down there (on the House floor). It’s different.”
Brothers Daniel and Dario Camacho, 29 and 24, were equally taken with the Supreme Court.
“I always thought it would be a little bit more formal,” said Daniel Camacho, who plans to become a lawyer.
The group sat in on the oral arguments for Boyer v. Louisiana, a case about whether a state failing to pay for an independent counsel for a defendant facing the death penalty counts as denial of the right to a speedy trial. But the arguments have gained far more notoriety for being the first time in nearly seven years Clarence Thomas opened his mouth and said — something even the reporters in the courtroom aren’t sure they could make out.
“I cannot remember what he said,” Dario Camacho said. "But he opened his mouth."
“That was history, I guess, too,” Gepford said.
As they went through the city, many speculated about where they might fit in.
The group is a mix of staunch Democrats, such as Gepford and Sandoval, staunch Republicans, such as the Camacho brothers, and self-professed independents, such as Miller. For this trip, they tabled much of their political differences for the sake of the inaugural experience.
“He’s still our president, regardless of whether you voted for him or not,” Dario Camacho said. “He still represents all of us, so for me, this is an honor to be here and watch him get inaugurated.”
The group also is a mixed bag of would-be professions and politics. Gepford wants to be a doctor and practice reconstructive surgery, Sandoval and the elder Camacho want to be lawyers, and Miller is considering the aviation industry. The group also sported two artists and one hopeful TV news weatherman.
“Honestly, I didn’t have much interest in the political side of things ... though it was interesting to see what the people behind the scenes do every day,” said Joe Cowan, 23, who is majoring in journalism and hopes to be a weather reporter. “But for me, the best thing has just been the buildings. There’s such a difference between here and where we’re from.
“In Las Vegas, things are built to impress but they’re not built to last. Whereas here, when they were building, they clearly seemed to say, ‘You know what, let’s make sure everything here will be standing as long as our democracy is standing, which is hopefully for eternity.”
Ultimately, the vast differences between here and home may bring some back and simply leave others with a greater appreciation for the capital city.
“I really like the D.C. lifestyle — everyone is just on-the-go, interested in what’s happening and politically involved,” Sandoval said.
“Definitely I would like to like to do something in politics, but I would like to do it at the state level,” Daniel Camacho said.
“I wanted to come because this is where all the decisions get made; everything that affects us back in Vegas starts here,” Dario Camacho. But, he said, it just doesn’t have the pace of home. “D.C. is nice and all ... but I don’t think this would be my kind of city. I’m more used to my city that goes 24 hours a day.”