If Hollywood had an interest in the ultimate rags to riches story, high school student version, it would consider the improbable journey of Max Harden ’22.
Since 6th grade at St. Lawrence through his time at Jesuit, Harden has relentlessly pursued a passion for civics and government. Unsurprisingly, participating in American Legion Boys State developed into his goal in high school. A selective, week-long summer program for rising seniors, Boys State has been designed for and produced young men just like Harden for 76 years – young men with an unwavering desire to serve in government.
But there he sat this spring, slumped in the office of Jesuit’s Director of Counseling, Jim Ranieri, who broke the bad news: Harden hadn’t made the cut. He wouldn’t be going to Tallahassee, to the State Capitol. He wouldn’t be training to learn first-hand about city, county, and state governments. While several other Jesuit students had been selected for Boys State, he was not.
Devastated but undeterred, Harden asked if anything could be done. Ranieri reached out to another American Legion post that still had an open slot, and he was able to arrange another interview for Harden. The last-ditch effort paid off. This time, Harden was selected. “I was honored to be chosen,” he said.
Harden arrived at Boys State in June and discovered it was everything he had hoped and expected – except it was a disaster, almost from the get-go.
Boys State is a flurry of activity. Operated by students – delegates – elected to various offices, Boys State includes legislative sessions, court proceedings, law-enforcement presentations, assemblies, and various special programs. Many of Florida's top political figures engaged the participants during the week, including Governor Ron DeSantis, U.S. Senator Rick Scott, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, and Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey.
Harden had researched Boys State intensively and was thoroughly prepared. He jumped right in, running for City Attorney and Federalist Party Chair.
He lost both. But he didn’t just lose, he lost in historic fashion. The Federalist Party Chair vote was something like 176-3 against him. The counselor for Harden's group, a law student at FSU, said it was the most lopsided defeat he’d ever seen in a Boys State election.
“I had given this fiery speech, and I got crushed,” Harden said. “I went back to square one. I wasn’t being myself. I love politics and policy, and I like to build connections and get to know people, and I wasn’t doing that.
“My counselor helped me out. We started talking politics, and he just encouraged me to just be myself. Then it all came together. I started having fun. The key really was just being myself.”
Everything turned around. Harden ran for Senate and won. “My dorm rallied around me,” he said.
He proposed a bill, on a topic he had studied deeply, regarding regulations on drug and alcohol treatment centers. It withstood the scrutiny on the legislative floor and passed both the House and Senate. “People liked it,” Harden said.
Eventually, from among the hundreds participating in Boys State, he was one of 22 nominated for Boys Nation in July in Washington D.C. Ultimately, just two boys from each state are chosen annually for Boys Nation.
During the process of winnowing from several hundred to 22 to 2, Harden just kept being himself – earnest, informed, mature, humble, inquisitive, respectful. And after multiple rounds of interviews, Max Harden – who had been rejected in the Boys State application process, and who was resoundingly defeated in his initial bids for office – had survived the final cut: he was headed to Boys Nation.
“I would never have believed any of this could happen,” said Harden, who credits Jesuit’s principal, Mike Scicchitano'01, and the school’s director of student activities, Austin Freeman '02, along with Ranieri and his parents, John and Liz Harden, for supporting him. “I thought back to sitting there with Mr. Ranieri. He said to ‘hang in there.’ I’m glad I did.”
Harden immediately got to work preparing for Boys Nation – sort of. First, he had to fulfill an 8-day service immersion mission trip to Jasper, Ga. He used the time not only to perform manual labor each day for people in need in the Jasper community, but to prep for Boys Nation.
“I spoke to the people of Jasper about issues, like they were constituents,” said Harden, whose preparation also consisted of subscribing to The Economist and reading the Constitution and several textbooks on government. “I listened to them and learned a lot. It was very beneficial – it gave me a feel for the legislative process.”
He returned from Jasper on July 21, decompressed for a day in Tampa, and then caught a flight to D.C. on July 23.
Boys Nation was a smorgasbord, filled with guest speakers, lobbyists, pollsters, and much more. He connected with other Boys Nation Senators, as they were called, from South Dakota, Idaho, Alabama, D.C., and Louisiana, to name a few, learning “what they care about” and discussing issues such as inflation, minimum wage, and different political systems.
“Everyone was so nice, so welcoming, and cared about the things I care about,” Harden said. “Great people.”
He had kept in close contact beforehand with Florida’s other Boys State rep, Charlie Jasso from Pensacola Catholic. They stayed in a dorm at Marymount University and together they navigated Boys Nation.
“Our chemistry was off the charts,” Harden said. “He’s a great guy, just like a Jesuit guy.”
Harden researched laws on train transportation and worked for three days straight writing a bill. He created a high-speed rail proposal and brought Georgia into the bill with a line that connected Tampa to Orlando to Jacksonville to Savannah to Atlanta. He called it the Florida-Georgia Line Act, playing off the name of the popular country duo.
The four-page bill with hundreds of pages of notes about things such as protected lands and pollution standards passed committee easily and went to the Senate floor, before the 99 other Senators. With one amendment added to it (to cap the total cost), it passed with 80 votes, one of just 25 bills to pass that week.
One night at dinner, Harden sat next to the national commander of the American Legion, Bill Oxford. They started talking, and soon they were poring over the details of Harden’s high-speed rail bill.
“I thought, ‘This is a long way from sitting in the Jesuit counseling office after being rejected,’” Harden said.
The Boys Nation representatives had told them, “This is a week that shapes a lifetime.” Harden thinks they were right about that.
“It was so true,” Harden said. “It was a really, really humbling experience, and I’m so grateful to have had this incredible opportunity.”