by Tara Blagg
A little over a month ago, I was working my last days at a part-time retail sales job and preparing to embark upon uncharted territory as a Legislative Study Group intern at the Capitol. Though we were well-equipped with trainings, a meeting with previous Session interns, and a discussion led by our future boss (Representative Coleman), I could not shake the feeling of being horribly unprepared. Folding piles upon piles of holiday sweaters and forcing a smile for hours, trying to convince an unwitting customer that they absolutely needed this necklace to pull their outfit together, or that of course those pants would help them land that job — grueling as it sometimes was — couldn’t possibly prepare me for listening to hours of committee testimony, navigating through expertly wordsmithed bills, or needing to craft pages of precise yet succinct analysis during the next five months.
Turns out, I was partially wrong.
There have been two aspects to our learning at the Capitol – the learning that deals with the legislative process and bill analysis (in a word, policy). Then, there is the learning that deals with everything else – what to say and what not to say, advocacy, power dynamics, and who’s who (in a word, politics). I am learning that the latter has a few elements surprisingly reminiscent of retail.
Advocacy is sales with meaning
About a week ago, the other LSG interns and I attended a mental health policy briefing given by a psychologist, Dr. Joe Dvoskin. Before he got to the podium, a single slide was up, which simply read: “How Mental Health Treatment Can Reduce Mass Shootings.” Some of the audience was intrigued, some were skeptical — but all were attentive. As he began his presentation, it became clear that he wasn’t really advocating for mental health policy to reduce mass shootings per se (he gave several statistics proving that mass shootings are actually incredibly rare, and that there is no significant correlation between mental illness and violence). What he was truly advocating for was suicide prevention. His argument was that any mass shooter is most likely suicidal; therefore, suicide prevention could help identify potential mass shooters, with the added benefit of, well, decreased suicide rates across the board.
Dr. Dvoskin wrapped a critical, yet underfunded and often overlooked policy– suicide prevention– into the attention-grabbing media hot-button issue of mass shootings. He illustrated the fact that advocacy for a meaningful policy isn’t always straight-forward. Like bestowing job-attaining properties upon a simple pair of well-fitting black slacks, framing your advocacy issue in a way that is appealing to your targeted funders and law-makers is the key to success.
Poker face is key
It is not uncommon to hear and see things at the Capitol that are cringe-worthy, especially for us as social workers. But no matter how antithetical to our sensibilities or passions someone else’s statements may be, or how tempting an eye-roll or an incredulous laugh may be in response, I am learning that a poker face is key. Just as I had to learn to smile when dealing with a difficult customer, learning to stay outwardly courteous is tough but necessary, particularly as a staffer.
“Our currency is information”
This phrase was spoken at more than a few of our trainings and orientations. What it refers to is that, at the Capitol, everyone is looking for everyone else’s insider information regarding bills in committee or on the floor. This includes lobbyists, representatives, and staffers. Giving away a piece of insider information about a bill is like giving away a valuable chunk of currency. Like in retail work, getting people to give up their precious currency is an invaluable skill – not just as a lobbyist, but also as a staffer trying to ascertain best practices for his or her representative to block a bill.
Wearing comfortable shoes
This has nothing to do with politics, but is something we all learned very quickly. Similar to working retail, we are doing A LOT of walking (in this case, around the Capitol, to and from the parking garage, to receptions, etc.). So forget about those fashionable high heels.
So, if you are hoping to one day work at the Capitol, but are currently working a job that just pays the bills, know that some of the seemingly pointless skills you are learning may translate in surprising ways. This week, we got assigned the committees we will cover. (Our primary responsibility is to analyze and provide a recommendation for every bill that leaves these committees). My largest is Appropriations (the committee in charge of meting out the state budget – daunting but exciting!) so some days in the next few months may feel like a few double shifts on an endless string of Black Fridays. However, I’m learning so much, and am definitely looking forward to what the rest of the Session has in store.