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Published January 09, 2009, 12:00 AM

Fergus Falls teen lands inaugural invite

In the buildup to last year’s presidential election, Erik Vergiels could tell you who led in the latest opinion polls and compare in detail the candidates’ economic plans.

By: Mila Koumpilova, The Forum

In the buildup to last year’s presidential election, Erik Vergiels could tell you who led in the latest opinion polls and compare in detail the candidates’ economic plans.

The Fergus Falls, Minn., 15-year-old got up a half-hour earlier to catch the “Good Morning America” election update before school.

He just couldn’t get enough.

Months after the suspense of the election season subsided, Erik is about to indulge in another dose of presidential excitement. He scored a special invitation to President-elect Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration in Washington, D.C.

He’ll mingle with the likes of former Vice President Al Gore and Gen. Colin Powell – along with thousands of fellow precocious politics junkies. And of course, he’ll attend the presidential parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. He’ll watch his cousin Joey play the bass drums in the Fergus Falls High School Marching Band, which landed a coveted spot in the parade.

“I’ll get to see history being made,” Erik said. “I am very excited about that.”

Erik’s earliest memory of riveting political spectacle is the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential recount in Florida, when he was 7. A passion for politics might be in his genes.

“Erik has two very strong, opinionated grandpas,” said his mom, Carrie Beithon, “and they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.”

His paternal grandfather, John Maurice Vergiels, a Democrat, is a former majority leader in the Nevada state Legislature. His maternal grandfather, Paul Beithon, a conservative, is a one-time Wahpeton, N.D., mayor.

Paul Beithon concedes his geographical proximity might have given him an edge: Erik is a fellow Republican. A few years back, Erik painted his room red, a haven of conservative conviction in a blue state. And he’s been known to joke about his grandpa John, “Yes, he is a Democrat, but I love him just the same.”

So naturally, Erik rooted for Republican John McCain in this latest presidential election. “Whenever we’d be together, he’d bring up the subject of politics and discuss the latest polls and developments,” Paul Beithon said.

Not surprisingly, Erik was thrilled last spring to receive an invite to the 2009 presidential inauguration.

In 2006, Erik’s industrial technology teacher, Paul Talley, nominated him for a Twin Cities young leaders conference put on by the Congressional Youth Leadership Council, a nonpartisan educational outfit based in Virginia. Regional events alumni get a chance to attend the Youth Inaugural Conference.

“If you ask a seventh- or eighth-grader what’s going on in the news, they won’t have a clue; he does,” said Talley, who recalls Erik’s thoughtful takes on anything from childhood obesity to the midterm election.

Erik, a football team member and a black belt in taekwondo, was elected class president last year. He was voted out this fall. He took his own and McCain’s losses in stride: “I was disappointed because I felt he would have made a good president. But I am too young to vote, so I can’t cry over it.”

His enthusiasm for attending the inauguration was undiminished. The five-day program will feature discussions with prominent political analysts, workshops on presidential campaign strategy – and Powell and Gore as keynote speakers.

Erik raised the money for the trip through a garage sale and donation pitches to relatives and friends. Both grandpas readily contributed.

Says Paul Beithon, “I suspect he might be in Washington himself someday.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529