As a kid growing up in Colorado, Andrew Lee loved the Denver Broncos. He discovered his love of politics a little later -- when his mother, an immigrant from southern China, decided that her son, the only Chinese kid in his middle school, should learn more about their culture...and rented the movie Chinatown.
That's when Lee learned that politics -- even water policy! -- could be every bit as interesting as sports. His freshman year at Lakewood High School, he was class president; senior year, he came in sixth in the country in debate -- all while helping at his family's Chinese restaurant downtown, learning "good, hardworking values." His parents didn't go to college; Lee's a Truman scholar now in his senior year at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. He's already done three political internships in Washington, D.C.; on his fall break, he returned home to Westminster and worked on both Bill Ritter's and Ed Perlmutter's campaigns.
He got back to school just in time to discover that he'd become a celebrity, the star of a story in the New York Times on Monday. The subject was "some harebrained idea I had my freshman year," Lee explains. "I pay attention to sports. I'd gone to Broncos games, Rockies games, lived through the time when Andres Galarraga left us, when John Elway finally retired. Going to the games, people are always talking about Jake Plummer, Mike Shanahan. Everyone knows the stats. I thought that if people could do that with Congress, we'd probably have a better Congress."
So he came up with Fantasy Congress, the ideal merger of sports and politics for a college kid who has a picture of Plummer in his dorm room. But Lee's also a very busy college kid, what with those internships and the policy institute he runs on campus and all his other activities, and it wasn't until this summer that three of his friends decided to help turn Fantasy Congress into a reality -- with two using it as a final project for their computer-science class. The partners got a start-up grant from the school, "a very small amount of money to pay for the hosting cost and server cost," Lee says, "and now it's the blood, sweat and tears of young college students."
After they got the game up (at www.fantasycongress.us) at the start of October, they told friends on campus about it, the friends told friends, and soon people around the globe were signing up. "Now we have our own statistics: over 6,300 registered users, over 200,000 registered visits per day from people around the world," Lee says. "A lot of people in Europe, some people in the Middle East." Even people who work in Washington -- lobbyists, inside-the-Beltway types and congressional aides. "We've had some staffers basically tell us, ŒI didn't draft my boss,'" Lee notes.
And while the game was growing, a professor told the college's PR department, which told reporters. "At least it's the Times," Lee says, "not Mad magazine or the National Enquirer."
These days, of course, the antics in Congress are funny enough for Mad, scandalous enough for the Enquirer. And that's presented unanticipated problems for Fantasy Congress. "With the scandals, we're having trouble keeping track of our roster," Lee admits. "When something happens, we have to move pretty quickly. Otherwise, there are five million people who want to tell us that things are going wrong."
Fantasy Congress works like most fantasy-sports leagues -- except your potential picks are more out of shape. Players create an account, join a league, draft a team composed of sixteen real members of Congress -- two Upper Senators, two Lower Senators, four All-Stars (senior representatives), four Supporting Lineup (mid-range reps) and four Rookies -- and then start collecting points. You get five points for each piece of legislation introduced, fifty points if and when that piece of legislation passes. Although partisan plays well in the House, senators score big with bipartisan efforts. "Senator Ken Salazar is doing very well -- you wouldn't expect it," Lee says. "He's doing the best of all first-term senators."
While Lee worked for Salazar's campaign after his freshman year at Claremont and clearly favors Democrats himself, he insists the stats can't be skewed. As evidence, look no further than Wayne Allard's current rank of 21, a good score tied to his role in appropriations. "Players know big-time senators just like they know big-time quarterbacks," Lee says, "but from the House, they'll pick locally."
For local Colorado picks, both Diana DeGette and Mark Udall are scoring high, with Tom Tancredo at 211 and Marilyn Musgrave ahead of that. But Bob Beauprez isn't doing well, currently ranking 80 out of 147 House rookies. "He sponsored a lot of legislation in 2005, only three pieces in 2006," Lee points out. "He hasn't earned many points." And one of those pieces that passed was for adjourning the session.
Lee has some hometown favorites of his own, in both fantasy and reality politics. "I would have to say Mark Udall and Ken Salazar," he says. "Ken is a straight shooter, and he'll speak to you really plainly. Mark has that polished gleam, which is really great, and he's creative."
Lee also likes Ed Perlmutter, thinks Andrew Romanoff is great, and "probably cooler than all of them put together is Ken Gordon," he says. Partly because he understands politics, but also because he has fun: Witness his current shark commercial. "I'm interested in government, making it more accountable, but also making it more fun," Lee explains. "This game shows you can make something with two words that never happen in the same sentence: Congress and fun."
And the fun's just getting started. For the next twelve days, Lee and his partners will continue to work on the site, build the community, encourage everyone to get in the game. "And on November 8, everybody on the site can go ahead and redraft, and get ready to play 110th Congress," Lee says. "Nancy Pelosi looks good." Before the new season begins, though, they'll finish out the lame-duck session. The citizen with the most points wins.
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But if he can get a lot of people playing, Lee figures everyone's a winner. "That's the big hope, to be able to make politics just like a sport," he says. "Little kids out there want to be basketball stars. They should want to be members of Congress."
Lee isn't ruling that out for himself. But first, he's going for a Rhodes scholarship and then maybe law school, all while he keeps working on the game, now incorporated in Colorado as Fantasy Congress LLC. And at some point, he hopes to come back to his home state. "I'm interested in serving the people of Colorado," he says. "When you're a kid growing up in Colorado -- especially the son of Chinese immigrants -- you don't think you have roots. But the more I'm away, I discover my culture is there."
Until then, "I'm still able to watch my Broncos beat the Cleveland Browns on Sunday."