• BEST IN STATE—Senior Courtney Schoen Lewis was named Best PR Student in Utah. Story

Up Close at the 2012 Utah Legislature: An Intern’s Perspective

April 8th, 2012 Posted in Arts and Life, Opinion

By Lis Stewart

SALT LAKE—The first task of my internship at the 2012 Utah Legislature was figuring out how to open a tripod.

On Day One at the Utah State Capitol, my boss handed me a beat-up cardboard box full of wires, an ancient video camera, a tripod, a soundboard and a laptop, and told me to figure out how to set up a live video stream on the Internet. Then, he went back to his office and left me to it.

Staring at the pile of equipment before me, I decided to start with what I do know—turn on the computer. Step one complete! Then, I pulled out the tripod. Not having taken any broadcast journalism classes before, my experience with video equipment was limited. It was touch-and-go for minute, but I finally had it up. The problem was, once I had the tripod open, I couldn’t figure out how to take it down for the next six weeks.

After about three hours of intense Googling and messing around with the video equipment, I finally had a live stream going. I felt so accomplished, and proudly showed my boss. He praised my hard work, then said we were going to replace everything I had just figured out how to do.

This may sound like a peculiar task for an internship at the Utah State Legislature, but my job description was a little different, too. Instead of researching legislation and ferrying lobbyists to and from legislators’ offices, like most interns, I worked as communications intern for Ric Cantrell, the Utah Senate chief of staff.

From 12-hour work days to chasing after buses with men in suits packing briefcases, sitting in on press conferences watching politicians banter with reporters like old friends, consuming copious amounts of saltwater taffy, and sitting on the floor of the Senate chamber watching legislation pass that will affect thousands of Utahns and spend millions of taxpayer dollars, I feel like my internship was a worthwhile experience.

Here are a few things I learned—beyond tripod science—about interning and politics in general from the media’s standpoint in just 45 days.

1. Stereotypes about politicians are true, but not universal.

In other words, while stereotypical dirty politicians do exist, most elected officials are just well-intentioned people who want to do a good job. They are real human beings with feelings, hopes and faults.

Sometimes they even act silly.

One day I was in the restroom washing my hands when a legislator ran in waving her arms and stamping her feet exclaiming, “There’s a spider on me!” She turned around in circles, brushing madly at her clothes, as I tried to help her spot the elusive bug. I left the loo that day (we never found the spider) with a new perspective on the normalcy of public figures.

Legislators lead relatively normal lives. In Utah, the legislative session is 45 days long, including weekends. During the rest of the year, Utah’s elected officials go home, run businesses, work humdrum jobs, or farm. They also attend monthly caucus meetings, visit constituents and, during election year, campaign for reelection. Although they are extremely busy, they still find time to meet with their constituents.

One thing other interns will tell you is how accessible the legislators are. You may have to make an appointment to visit your representative or senator, but they’ll be happy to schedule you in for a chat.

2. Interns know everything.

I saw a bill pass because of information an intern found and put on a handout. Interns are a very powerful necessity at the Legislature. Lobbyists and reporters know interns could spill the beans easily about legislation that isn’t finalized yet. If you do decide to do a legislative internship—in Washington, D.C., or in Utah—here are a few pieces of advice:

• Be careful what you say. Anywhere. Don’t give your opinions on a bill or policy in a public place, and don’t trashtalk anyone, even if you think it’s in confidence. Your legislator trusts you with a lot of confidential information, and part of your job is to make sure they don’t look bad.

• Make friends with everyone, even if you disagree about policy or personal issues. In fact, leave personal issues at the Capitol doors. People from unlikely places will come in handy when you need a favor. Not everyone at the state Capitol sees eye to eye on every issue, but by golly they will be civil in order to get things done.

• Don’t upset the secretaries or pages. In any office setting, they are the ones who really run the place.

• Eat lunch in the cafeteria whenever possible. You will hear bits and pieces of people’s conversation that will be useful to you, and make more friends.

• Sign up for Political Cornflakes emails from The Salt Lake Tribune, and get a Twitter account. Use Google Alerts, too. At the Legislature, and especially in a media internship, keeping your finger on the pulse is very important.

• You will work harder than you ever imagined. If someone tells you to do something you don’t know how to do, figure it out. There are no excuses in the real world.

• Brush up on your knowledge of how government works. Know the speaker of the House, the Senate president, the governor, lieutenant governor, majority and minority leaders for both houses, the whips, heads of committees, etc. Know how a bill becomes a law—and I’m not just talking the basics. I’m talking about knowing what happens from the time a bill gets drafted, to presented, to committee, to amendments, to the floor.

• On that note, USU needs a class or seminar comparable to those offered by BYU and the University of Utah. There is a reason most of the legislative interns come from those two schools, and it’s because their students are better prepared to intern. USU interns do a great job at the Utah Legislature, but we are small in number.

3. The Utah Legislature is highly respected for being technologically forward.

In fact, the Legislature’s website has won awards for democracy and open government since 1998. From the Legislature’s homepage, you can find links to a live video stream of every committee meeting and floor session. You can also research any bill and find out where it’s at in the legislative process, find out who voted for it and read the entire text.

4. For those of you looking for internships…

Keep an active Twitter account and a personal website, especially if you are a USU JCOM major. A lot of people asked me how I got this job and I tell them it was because of Twitter. In my Introduction to Online Journalism class, we were required to make a website and create a Twitter account. Because I started following the Utah Senate on Twitter, the Senate chief of staff saw my account, found my résumé on my website, and invited me to apply for the position.

Most government internships are not found that way, however. USU’s Institute of Government and Politics works very hard to place interns and assist them in anyway possible throughout their internship. Even if your major is not political science, an internship at the Legislature is something you should consider.

An up-close view of how laws are made is a valuable tool for anyone, because they affect most of your life. If you like a fast-paced work environment and don’t mind losing sleep for 45 days, the Utah Legislature is a good place for you. Plus, the Legislature is an excellent place to network for a college student about to enter the workforce.

Now that it’s over, I get nostalgic thinking about the Rotunda crawling with school group tours and the outside of the House and Senate chambers crowded with lobbyists. I miss early mornings riding the UTA’s Frontrunner with yawning businesspeople and U students (misguided as they are for not going to USU).

It’s amazing how in a mere 45 days the Utah Legislature becomes like family. I miss the amazing people I met there, and now we are all scattered back into the real world. Two weeks after the session ended, I walked onto the Senate floor and was sadly struck by how quiet it is. Some House interns might laugh at this, because the Senate is always comparatively quiet compared to the House.

But both sides of the Capitol are nearly empty now, unless lawmakers are called back for another special session. But I won’t count on that. Until next year, dear Legislature. Until next year.


Tags: , , ,

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.