A Catalyst for Careers in Politics and Public Policy: The Washington State Legislative Internship Program

Interns in Washington State Legislative Internship ProgramSince 1955, UW undergraduates have learned about lawmaking by devoting winter quarter to working full time in Olympia for members of the Washington State House of Representatives or Senate.  As part of this enriching experience, interns also meet with state officials, participate in academic seminars, and engage in mock floor debates on current issues. For more than 50 years the Washington State Legislative Internship program has been an important catalyst for careers in politics and public policy.

What do King County Executive Dow Constantine, gubernatorial candidate and KIRO Radio host John Carlson, and Washington’s newest Solicitor General Noah Purcell have in common? As UW Political Science undergraduates, they all participated in the Washington State Legislative Internship Program.  Created by UW Political Science Professor Hugh Bone in 1955, the program endures as a preeminent opportunity for ambitious undergraduates from the state’s institutions of higher learning to learn about lawmaking.

 “Students get to observe government in action from behind the scenes,” says John Wilkerson, UW Professor of Political Science and academic coordinator of the program. “They learn what politics is really about through active participation in the political process.”

This year the UW sent twelve interns to Olympia for winter quarter. The selection process is highly competitive and includes one on one interviews with the program coordinators, who size applicants up for their professionalism and writing abilities. Those selected are then either assigned to work for a single State Senator or in a House pool where they typically report to two or three Representatives. This year, UW legislative interns are working for (among others) Lieutenant Governor Troy Kelly, State Senator Ed Murray (Seattle), and State Senator Sharon Nelson (Wenatchee).

Interns begin their work prior to the start of the session. Judi Best and Paula Rehwaldt, intern coordinators for the Senate and House respectively, conduct a three-day orientation that serves as a crash course in the legislative process. They cover content ranging from an overview of the committee process, to an introduction to writing constituent letters, to how to deal with state agencies. Once the session begins the interns get very busy, very quickly.

In addition to working long days answering phones, drafting letters to constituents, and researching legislative issues, interns keep a daily journal, write two research papers on topics that pique their interests, and participate in a mock debate on the Senate floor. Later in the session they have the option of spending a day shadowing a state official or traveling north to learn about the Canadian parliamentary process.

Equally important are the networking opportunities the experience affords. Students develop reputations through their work. They get to know lawmakers and staff, as well as students from across the state who share a deep interest in politics. These ties sometimes lead to immediate job opportunities in Olympia working for the government or on future re-election campaigns. But even for those students who pursue other paths, the Washington State Internship Program instills fond memories and an ethos of public service.

Additional information about the internship program can be found here, http://www.leg.wa.gov/INTERNSHIPS/Pages/default.aspx.

John Wilkerson is the faculty coordinator for the Olympia Internship Program. He is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy.  His most recent book is Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving (Cambridge University Press, 2013 with E. Scott Adler).

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