Image Credits: Courtesy of the author
As a native Californian, it seems that with each passing election year Republican work opportunities here only decline in number. The only choice for young Republican Californians who seek government work is actually an ultimatum: work for a Democrat in your home state or leave California to find a Republican.
My home Congressional district, California’s 20th, is especially left-wing. Encompassing all of the Monterey Bay down the Central Coast, this electorate is the quintessential stereotype of California leftism. This has led to a monopoly on our House seat favoring Democrats.
In the 2016 election year, California’s 20th district elected a fresh face from a familiar political dynasty: Jimmy Panetta. If that family name seems familiar, that is most likely thanks to his father Leon Panetta.
Leon first served as an appointee under Nixon back in the 1960s. Panetta switched parties from Republican to Democrat in the early 1970s, sensing the political tide in California turning. From 1976 onward, he is re-elected to California’s 20th district Representative eight times. Finally, after working as President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, Leon is later appointed the Director of the CIA and then Secretary of Defense under the Obama administration.
If those seems like big shoes to fill, they are. Leon Panetta is a Democrat living legend and has earned the respect of many Republicans. As CIA Director, he coordinated the operation that ended the terror regime and life of Osama bin Laden. Like his father Leon, Jimmy has served our country in the realm of defense. He was the Deputy District Attorney for Monterey County, bringing down many of the violent gangs that once terrorized Salinas and outlying neighborhoods. Jimmy volunteered for active duty in 2007 and his meritorious service in combat earned him a Bronze Star. After leaving active duty, he was responsible for many veterans initiatives, including establishing a veterans cemetery at the former Fort Ord.
Since becoming elected, he has decidedly forged a left-wing path in the House for himself. There are more centrist measures for veterans and those in agriculture, but most of his views come straight from the Democrat party platform. I, on the other hand, am a Republican.
Despite this evident political difference, I knew as an undergraduate that I wanted to intern for my Congressman come rain or come shine. After all, it is just as much my district as any Representative elected to that seat. After a submission of my resume and an interview with a district office staffer, I was chosen to intern for Congressman Panetta for the fall semester of my senior year of undergraduate studies.
Here are some of my takeaways from that experience which may be useful for others, whether working for someone with whom you share values or someone whose values do not align with your own.
Focus on common ground
Focusing on common ground is a hackneyed strategy because it works. Both the Panetta family and my family are of Italian descent. In fact, we both belong to the Sons and Daughters of Italy. Leon Panetta actually attended my parents’ wedding thanks to the “Paisan” connection. This particular example is only one of many in my time at Panetta’s office. I found that although there were disagreements about how something needed to be done, oftentimes what needed to be done in the first place was agreed on—like the homelessness crisis or a need for better veteran care.
It is not about you
This might be difficult to read if you are a millennial, but sometimes it really is not about you. Interning for a Representative that does not share your values teaches critical lessons in humility and patience. As an intern, oftentimes it is your responsibility to explain a position to a constituent who calls, writes, or visits the office. It was not my place to say how I happen to feel about an issue. Jimmy was elected to represent the district’s majority viewpoints, not I.
A sure way to end an internship early is to get in the habit of representing your own interests instead of respecting the office your Representative earned. There is actually a certain level of security in advocating for your Representative’s viewpoint; there may not be the benefit of speaking freely, however the liability if something goes awry is not on you alone. Did I agree with the person calling lauding Panetta for his stance on the Second Amendment? No. Did I graciously thank her for calling all the same? Of course.
Know thy enemy
Just like Versailles, keeping a watchful eye on the behavior of those seeking to usurp your throne can only strengthen your reign. Perhaps describing it this way is a bit too much, but understanding how and why those who disagree with you have come to their viewpoints is incredibly beneficial. I have learned rhetorical tricks and framing from the Democrats that I use to get patriotic points across. While working there, no one knew I was a Republican.
Remember, no one has to know your personal views unless you care to share them openly. The more listening you do, the more comfortable others will be around you. I found friends easily in the office simply by being interested in their views. I was truly absorbed and curious about everything. This strategy will pay off if you simply keep your ears open.
Ainsley Hayes: “Cause I speak Republican”
If you have ever enjoyed The West Wing, you may be familiar with the bold and intelligent Ainsley Hayes. On the show, she was the sole Republican legal perspective in an entirely Democrat administration. In one of her first episodes, she is terribly nervous about executing her job properly—something that the rest of the administration cannot do: “speak Republican.” There may be the rare opportunity that one of your daily calls or visitors vehemently disagrees with your Representative and requires a bit of a cool down. Oftentimes, leftists do not know how to emotionally or rhetorically reach conservatives or independent voters. This may be your moment to use the skills gleaned from listening to your colleagues.
Using the rhetorical framing of the right to deliver a message from the left has worked on more than one occasion of an disquieted constituent. Disapproving of the EPA? The Representative just wants to keep our country, the greatest country in the world, clean and beautiful. Agitated with sanctuary state or city policy? The Representative is seeking to help poor immigrants live out their own American dreams. Even though I disagree with the true content of these arguments, this “speak Republican” framing dulls the point of the political sword. This way, you respect the platform of your Representative while still appeasing a constituent.
I ensure you that this is the most important takeaway of all. Interning for a Representative is a great privilege and opportunity, one that most Americans do not get to enjoy for themselves. The work is hard and the pace can be like an Olympic sprint, but the experience is irreplaceable.
As an example, one day I got a call from a constituent in a foreign embassy desperately seeking to explain to the Federal government that he was not actually deceased but merely on a long-term mission to build a school and a new chapel elsewhere. The government had assumed since he had not been active over a certain period of time that they needed to put his social security number and passport out of circulation. His wife, on the other line of the phone here in the United States, had to search for all the necessary documentation. We had to make multiple conference calls and fax over many papers expeditiously to correct the situation, but it had all the excitement of solving a mystery. Experiences like that do not happen anywhere else, and you will never forget them. Cherish your internship days, they do not last forever.
Ultimately, the choice is yours if you would like to work for someone with opposing political views. In California, I do not have much choice—but you just might. I find despite the political circumstances of my internship with Congressman Panetta, I thoroughly enjoyed my time and the invaluable experience it offered. There are many lessons to learn in these offices, like when to speak and when to listen: both have their uses. Whatever it is you choose, consider the unique challenges and what you might glean from outside of your comfort zone for a while. Growth arises from conflict.
I’ll be seeing you on the Hill!