FORT MILL -- It doesn't always take multimillion-dollar lobbying machines to sway votes.
Orchard Park Elementary School third-grader Leah Gardner, 8, addressed state lawmakers and staff in Columbia this week in support of a "gifted and talented" funding bill.
"She was by far the most effective lobbyist that I have come across this year," said state Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land.
The Fort Mill student spoke to about 85 people Thursday at a S.C. Consortium for Gifted Education breakfast. She told them about some of her favorite gifted and talented classes, including science, in which she gets to do real experiments.
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State Rep. Carl Gullick, R-Lake Wylie, described her as "unbelievably comfortable" and "about the size of a peanut."
"She hit a home run," he said. "It's one thing for a member to just vote. It's another thing for a member to actively argue. I think she took this to the next level. I'm really for this now."
The consortium's slogan this year is "Shatter the Ceiling." It seeks more funding and programs for gifted and talented students who are limited by the current system. The consortium asked Leah's teacher to suggest a poised student speaker who could address Columbia lawmakers.
The secret to self-confidence, Leah explained, is practicing a speech in front of Build-a-Bears and teddy bears. More than 20 of them.
She and her teacher, Lipi Pratt, collaborated on the speech. Here mom, Kristen Gardner, practiced with Leah and the teddy bears at least once a day for a week. That included making eye contact, a technique dreaded by all public speakers.
Mom, dad and Pratt were in the audience Thursday giving her secret prompts. A lifted knife meant "speak louder." A lifted spoon meant "speak slower."
"I think it went well," Leah said. "I was a little bit nervous. Just talking through it and knowing I was almost done helped."
Her last sentence -- known in public speaking jargon as "the clincher" -- sent her three-minute message to its mark: "I have given you a few reasons why my gifted and talented class matters to me and can really give me reasons why kids like me are important to pass this bill."
Despite her lobbyist potential, Leah would like to be a teacher, artist or author.
After the breakfast, Mulvaney took the Gardner family to a restricted historical area of the library, where Leah perused legal records, including some from 1865 and World War I.
She had the option of remaining in Columbia for another day and meeting the governor, but Leah has set her priorities.
"I didn't want to miss two days of school when I wasn't sick," Leah explained.