On The Hill
USU interns keep gears at Utah Legislature’s moving.
You can ask 500 stupid questions. That’s your limit.’”
The day was Jan. 22. The Utah State Legislature had just convened its 2018 session.
“‘I’ll tell you when you’re getting close.’”
But new boss, Sen. Lyle Hillyard (R-Logan), wasn’t quite done. “‘If you make a mistake, I’ll take all the blame for it. But don’t make a mistake in the first place.’”
And with that guidance, Katie Miner began her first day as a student intern on Capitol Hill.
A lifetime later (OK, actually 45 days), 20-year-old Miner, a political science major and news junkie, smiles at only fond memories. She agrees with another (former) Hillyard intern who told her that his “entire career has been shaped” by his experience in Hillyard’s office.
Miner was one of 15 USU interns who were the gears behind the work churned out during Utah’s most recent 45-day legislative session. According to Political Science professor Damon Cann, the Utah Legislature “would have a very hard time operating as successfully as it does if it weren’t for the interns that Utah State and other universities provide.”
About a third of USU’s intern corps is Political Science students, but there’s also a healthy representation from History, Journalism and Communication and English.
Most, like Miner, are the only staff members – usually unpaid – in the offices of the politicians who make the vital laws and course correction that affect all Utahns. All of the student interns gain lasting lessons from their time in the political sphere. All, said Cann, leave their mark on the Legislature in helpful and thoughtful ways.
For Matilyn (Mattie) Mortensen, that meant being the public smile of a public figure, Rep. John Knotwell, who represents her hometown of Herriman, Utah, and serves as the majority assistant whip in Utah’s House of Representatives. The 22-year-old JCOM major tracked her boss’s email, set schedules and triaged the needs of constituents wanting to speak with Knotwell. “I did the logistics thinking so he could do the decision making,” she says.
USU also sends plenty of interns to Washington, D.C. There, as in Utah, it’s about the opportunity, not the politics. “USU places students in Democratic offices and Republican offices,” said Cann. “I know whatever side of an issue they’re advocating for, that they will be smart, they will be thoughtful, that they’ve been well trained and they will do the very best they can on behalf of our state and country.”
In addition to the Utah Legislature, USU this year has placed 45 interns in Washington, D.C. – in congressional offices, federal agencies and politically focused businesses. About a dozen more work with local campaigns or law firms, said Neil Abercrombie, USU vice president for federal and state relations and director of the Institute for Government and Politics, which works to pair students with meaningful and purposeful internships.
Miner interned last summer for the Larrison Group, a political consulting firm located near the White House that counts among its clients senators Orrin Hatch of Utah, David Perdue of Georgia and Ohio’s Rob Portman.
Political campaigns may be exciting, but Miner admits she leans more toward less-sexy policy issues. She played a significant role in drafting Utah’s 2018 SB1, the Public Education Base Budget. The budget is Hillyard’s responsibility as head of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee.
“One thing that all of our interns learn is that governing is hard,” said Cann.
“An internship opportunity really helps students to get in and have a better understanding of how significant the challenges we face really are, how difficult it is to identify solutions — and yet, how rewarding it can be to participate in a process that generates progress on some of the concerns that people in our state are facing,” he said.
A number of students, like Miner, seek internships both in Washington D.C. and here in Utah. But they’re very different experiences, said Cann.
Washington, D.C., he said, has “an energy that doesn’t exist anywhere else because it is the seat of government for our country.”
The capital city, he adds, “is teeming with young professionals. There are incredible networking opportunities, and everywhere you go in D.C., just about anyone you talk to will have some interest or desire to engage with politics.”
Cann chuckles. “They say that even the cab drivers in Washington, D.C., know what’s going on in Congress on a given day. It’s consuming because there’s so much – and it’s so consequential.”
Whatever an intern’s role in Washington, D.C., though, they are “a fairly small part in a pretty big machine,” says Cann.
“Our students who go to D.C. have some really exciting experiences, but they are also more routine experiences,” he said. “They’ll work on phones, help with constituent mail or gives tours of the Capitol and engage with constituents as they come into the office,” he said. “They’ll attend hearings and do policy research.”
Meanwhile, back in Utah, the landscape is very different. Elected officials on Utah’s Capitol Hill rely much more on the help of their unpaid interns/office staff.
“It may be a smaller machine,” said Cann. “But the intern in Salt Lake City is a bigger piece in that machine – and has a very significant role.”
Both Miner and Mortensen are quick to list what they’ve learned. Mortensen was pleased to “learn the process” of the Legislature, she said, and see “good people try to make hard decisions.” She continues to focus on politics as a reporting intern for Utah Public Radio.
Miner, a graduate of Olympus High in Salt Lake City, has plans to study law at Georgetown University. She now understands, she says, “what it means to have complete integrity in the face of making really difficult decisions that other people don’t agree with. That’s something I never would have learned without this” internship.
If you’ve ever watched national news and wondered at the sheer number of young people scurrying behind politicians, carrying their clipboards, there is a good reason for their energetic presence. The key word here is young. Otherwise, said Mortensen, “I don’t think your body could handle it. The pace is what makes it so exciting, but I was grateful it (the Utah legislative session) was only 45 days.”
In fact, said Cann, legislative government in D.C. is largely handled by staffers between the ages of 20 and 35 or so. “Most of the individuals working in the congressional offices are people 10 years or less removed from their college education,” he said.
Some in the hinterlands, he adds, “may scratch their heads and wonder how it is that those individuals without more experience have been selected for these positions.
“On the flip side, it gives me great confidence. I see students with incredible talents who are going out and doing these internships,” he said. “I know how well they will do the job, I know how seriously they take it, how devoted they are to making good decisions.”