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The Legislature’s ‘minor league’: internships often lead to careers

It’s 7 p.m. on a Wednesday and, returned from their shifts at the Capitol, a small group of legislative interns are gathered in a Macalester College classroom, comparing notes about life on the lowest rung of lawmaking.

A constituent raged against the evil of daylight saving time. A senator baked an exemplary loaf of banana bread. A staffer suggested a chair race through the office. Protesters shouted, whistled and marched in the hall.

“Right off the bat, they told me, ‘This isn’t your standard office setting,’” said Cody Olson, who interned in the office of Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne. “It’s kind of chill over there.”

Jacob Henderson, an intern with Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, didn’t necessarily agree and reminded his peers of a legislator who recently “went through” her third legislative assistant in four years. “She definitely has a reputation for being very intense,” he said. “She doesn’t take crap from anyone.”

Olson and Henderson are two of the 13 Macalester students who interned at the Capitol this spring. In recent years, the majority of legislative interns have commuted from either Macalester or the University of Minnesota, the two Twin Cities colleges offering regular spring political science courses to complement the internship programs. (Precocious high schoolers and grad students in law or public policy can also intern at the Legislature.)

For a decade now, Macalester professor Julie Dolan has been teaching Legislative Politics — a three-hour, once-a-week night class open only to interns. (I took the course in 2008, during my internship for Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul.)

“Initially surprising to them is that although people are dressed very professionally, it’s not a super-competitive, high-stress environment,” she said. “It’s collaborative in many ways.”

Interns typically work 12 to 15 hours a week: filing and copying bills and memos, answering phones, sending letters and emails to constituents, conducting small-scale research, running errands, passing out papers during committee meetings.

“Oftentimes interns may be given duties others don’t wish to do, jobs they find boring,” said Scott Magnuson, the director of the Senate Information Office. “I try to make sure students are here for an academic experience, and it needs to be a two-way street.”

Magnuson said internships are students’ best chance to land a career at the Capitol. Almost a quarter of Senate staffers were once interns. And during one recent session, former interns held 80 percent of the legislative assistant positions in the Republican caucus. Interns frequently go on to work in state agencies, for interest groups and at the governor’s office.

“It’s kind of a minor league system for the Senate and the House,” Magnuson said. “I’ll have lobbyists approach me: ‘Do you know of an intern from last year? We’re looking for assistance during session.’”

Minnesota’s legislative interns have no official history. But while more than 15 House staff members have, over the past 20 years, supervised its internship program, Magnuson has led the Senate’s program since 1980. His memory is long.

The first Senate interns, he said, arrived in the spring of 1966 under an informal arrangement. That year, about 10 students came to St. Paul from Carleton College. They helped legislators with research and office tasks and learned about the work of governing. At the time, the entire Legislature had just two researchers.

By 1974, the Senate internship program had become somewhat more formalized, Magnuson said, and was run out of the Senate Information Office. The program grew steadily in the ’90s and early 2000s, as interns took on work previously performed by committee pages and clerks. In recent years, the Minnesota Senate has hired 80 to 100 interns per session; the House, about 20 to 30.

Unpaid internships

Pahoua Yang Hoffman is rankled by the Legislature’s history of paying interns less than minimum wage or asking them to work for free. Hoffman worked her way through the U of M, shelving books and leading admissions tours. She said she couldn’t have afforded to take an unpaid internship during college and, without one, her career suffered. “It became harder for me later on in my profession to make connections,” she said.

Now policy director of the Citizens League, Hoffman reached out to Minnesota lawmakers over the past year, asking if they would participate in a new “Capitol Pathways“ internship program designed to give students of color real-world experience in the field of politics.

More than a dozen government offices, nonprofits, and lobbying firms signed up for the program. But legislators uniformly declined, telling Hoffman they couldn’t pay interns the $12 an hour mandated by the nonprofit.

House interns have always worked for free, while the Senate has at times offered a small stipend, subject to the whims of senators and the fiscal winds. A stipend for Senate interns of $75 per week was eliminated during the recession in 2011. Despite the state’s economic recovery and budget surplus, no bill has been filed seeking to reinstate it.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer is a favorite among interns for her homemade baked goods. “If you feed people, it always helps make them feel more comfortable,” she says. (File photo)

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer is a favorite among interns for her homemade baked goods. “If you feed people, it always helps make them feel more comfortable,” she says. (File photo)

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Elk River, sees working for free as “a choice they make.” “It’s important for us to give them a generous experience,” she said. “If it’s paid, we have a problem as far as how many we can have.”

Dolan said she doesn’t know anything about the economic circumstances of her students, but she believes credit to be compensation enough, and she emphasized the legal distinction between corporate internships and ones at nonprofits or government agencies. “The students learn a lot about democracy and politics and representation and policymaking,” she said. “Legislators are saving taxpayers money by not having to hire staff to do this work, but that’s a different argument than saying 3M is just going to benefit off the free labor of these kids.”

Many of Dolan’s students said they didn’t need the money. “The lack of pay means most people are passionate about politics and want to do something with the career path,” said Annika Sanora, who interned this spring under Sen. Alice Johnson, DFL-Blaine.

But Hoffman said that even if unpaid internships are primarily an educational experience, they are inherently exclusionary toward low-income students.

“Historically, only certain students who can afford to apply for unpaid internships get those experiences,” Hoffman said. “That’s what we see over and over and over again.”

Magnuson said he’d prefer to see students paid fairly. “A stipend makes it a little easier for interns to work a few less hours at their job,” he said. “I think the stipend is very important to the program.”

The Citizens League is raising money independently, and hopes to place Capitol Pathways students into paid internships at the Legislature as soon as next year.

Data on interns’ gender or race are not tracked at the Legislature, but the Senate does record the party affiliation of the senators with whom interns are matched.

Magnuson said interns’ party preferences are influenced by the national political climate.

“We had a larger number of students interested in working for Republican senators during the Reagan years,” Magnuson said. “We saw a huge increase in students interested in the Democrats with President Obama’s election.”

Paul Soper, who teaches the class for interns at the U of M, said legislators’ interest in hiring interns can also wax and wane.

“The House in particular has gone back and forth in party leadership several times in recent years,” he said. “During a transition, they’re so focused on, ‘Now we’re in the majority again with all this work to do.’ The last thing on their list is, ‘How can we hire more interns?’”

House or Senate

While more students intern in the Senate, it’s an open secret that the House provides a more rewarding experience. House members have fewer staffers and rarely take on more than one intern in a session, leading to less busywork.

Ethan Stagg said he was surprised Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, gave him few “intern-y” tasks like filing, copying and constituent mail.

“I sat in on an amendment two legislators were working on, and they asked me questions about how I thought this sounded and what I would change,” he said. “An 18-, 19-year-old intern doesn’t know the full scope of what’s going on, but they still make an effort to include you and try to engage your ideas and thoughts.”

Perhaps unfortunately, Magnuson’s Senate internship program is better organized, recruiting students at colleges and pre-screening applicants for senators. “The House is just ‘Eh, you know, send us your application, and we’ll see what we can do,’” Dolan said. As a result, students will often accept internships with the upper body before they hear back from the House.

“A lot of my students who get internships at the House tend to know the legislator somehow,” Soper said.

(Magnuson said when lawmakers have hired an unvetted “friend of a friend,” it hasn’t always ended well. “We had one student who absolutely drove the old secretary up a wall – rude comments and insulting people,” he said. “He felt he could get away with it.”)

Stagg said he appreciated the more laid-back atmosphere of the House.

“My representative will definitely swear a lot more, letting his hair down,” he said. “What he says about his Republican colleagues would not be something he’d be comfortable with having people hear on the floor.”

But Suveer Daswani, a classmate of Stagg’s in Dolan’s Wednesday night course, said he preferred the Senate’s faster pace and formal dress code.

“The reason I wanted to be in the Senate is because I like wearing a suit and tie every day,” he said. “It gives me another chance to, you know, look good.”

‘Go find the plastic’

Interns judge their legislators as much for their culinary talents as their political beliefs.

Kiffmeyer is a favorite among interns for her homemade baked goods. “If you feed people, it always helps make them feel more comfortable,” she said. One of Daswani’s fondest memories of his internship was the time Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, brought his staff chicken and bacon.

Yet former representative John Tuma said complimentary cuisine at the Capitol is a shadow of what it once was. He served as an intern for Sen. Robert Schmitz, DFL-Jordan, in 1985, a decade before ethics reforms put an end to lunchtime free-for-alls.

“That was back when lobbyists could take you out for lunch,” Tuma recalled. “Al Loehr [Schmitz’s committee administrator] would say, ‘John, go find a lobbyist to have lunch with us.’ He’d mean, ‘Go find someone who will pay.’ Sometimes he’d say, ‘Go find the plastic.’”

(Soper said things have changed and, today, interns are disabused of mercenary stereotypes of lobbyists. “Students have the idea they’re a cigar-chomping old guy who slaps people on the back,” he said. “They learn that lobbyists are actually highly trained — some have law degrees — and they’re there to share information.”)

Paying it forward

When Tuma first sought elected office, in 1992, his only formal political experience was his semester-long internship in Schmitz’s office.

He looked to capitalize on it. Running for the state House, against a community activist and a city council member, he positioned himself as an insider, arguing he’d learned during his internship how to get things done in St. Paul.

“The message I had was that I was knowledgeable about the process, that I’d be able to hit the ground running at the Capitol,” he said. “Of course, it didn’t work because I lost.”

But Tuma won the next election for the seat two years later and, once in office, the Northfield Republican took on interns of his own.

“Having been an intern, I wanted to make sure I paid it forward,” he said. “It’s fun to give them the inside view of what’s going on and to see their wide eyes when they start to understand the process.”

Those “wide eyes” are a commonplace of legislators, who often characterize their interns as dewy naifs, tremulous and slightly terrified.

“They tend to be almost universally cautious,” Kiffmeyer said. “I let them know everything’s going to be OK, it’s going to be fine. Most everybody here is a mom or a dad with children. Our attitude toward them is, ‘We love having you here and you’re wonderful. We love having you around.’”

To bring interns up to speed, Kiffmeyer gives them research projects or tells them to attend a meeting of a committee they “have no clue about.” She’ll ask them to read her district’s local newspapers and notify her of constituents she can congratulate or of local events she can attend — “like a Lutheran Church pork chop dinner or the German Catholic Church Polka Festival.”

Before this process of acculturation, Kiffmeyer said, she finds it difficult to communicate with her interns.

“It’s hard to have a conversation when they’re so new,” she said. “Everything is, as you say, Greek to me,” she said. “Toward the last month or so, they have enough experience, and they tend to be not so uptight.”

About Zac Farber

Zac joined Minnesota Lawyer in October 2015 after a year working as a web producer and reporter at WCCO-TV.

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