Our Stories

Willamette Student Interns Are a Mainstay at Capitol

The cross-the-street relationship is mutually beneficial.

John Turner, beet-faced and glistening, reaches for his can of Diet Coke -- even before he can catch his breath.

"This is the drink of choice around here," said Turner, wiping off shiny beads of sweat forming from his 5-minute sprint from Willamette University to the Capitol.

His coffee mug sits empty on his small but tidy desk, leading the 21-year-old to chug, not sip, his soda, as if desperate for his daily fix of caffeine. He then begins to talk of his daily routine as a Capitol intern, detailing his passion for politics -- and his love for audit reports.

"It's just this amazing insight into the process," Turner said, with enthusiasm he attributes to his boss, Rep. Alan Bates, D-Ashland.

This wide-eyed and ambitious excitement is exhibited not only in Turner but in many of the 47 Willamette interns working at the Capitol.

For as long as many legislators can remember, Willamette interns have been a continuous presence at the Capitol. Bates has hired five Willamette interns in his two terms.

Traditionally, students from the private college dominate the crew of interns working in the building and the number continues to grow each session.

Willamette professors say it is due to a budding interest in politics. Interns say location is their incentive and a quality work environment is its appeal.

The comfort level between interns and their respective employers is high, especially for Turner, who gets his boss' attention with "Hey, Bates." Bates has nicknamed his intern "Rock Star."

Bates said the interns are a lot of fun to have around, and when it comes to working, they are great.

"They're bright young kids interested in policy, and we get to take advantage of that by having them help," he said.

For many politics junkies at Willamette, getting one foot in the door of government while keeping the other grounded in classwork is what makes the internship worthwhile.

Working close to the college was not a fluke for Sarah Sutton. It was a calculated decision to further her career aspirations.

"The reason I chose to go to Willamette is because it was right across the street from the Capitol," she said.

Sutton, 22, said she knew of her love for politics at age 12, when she began writing random letters to President Clinton. Now, she writes proclamations for Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

But Sutton said she still is getting used to people wanting things as soon as they ask.

"People are here with a mission and are pushy -- but that's part of public service," she said.

During a dramatic session such as this one, Turner said it can be hard to not debate issues among peers, though most of the interns he associates with are Democrats.

Among the youth politicking, the more heated issues have been the budget, abortion and Measure 28. Personal values also can weigh in for some.

A registered independent, Turner said he would not consider working for a Republican, based on many of their decisions this session.

He said his views are more parallel to Bates.

Sutton, a Democrat, was exposed to working in an all-Republican office her sophomore year, when interning for Sen. Steve Harper, R-Klamath Falls, last session. She was affectionately nicknamed "Dixiecrat," a political cliche referring to Democrats who stick around Republicans.

Interns work on average 20 hours per week. They start in January and are warned about the uncertainty of an end-of-session date.

Politics senior Emily West said that stretching the hours between school and work is easier with the Capitol being so close. Bringing a dose of reality politics into her learning gives her an advantage in class, she said.

Many of the students are preparing for a future in politics. Turner said his next step is law school. Sutton is weighing her choices, and West expects to stay with public service.

This article was written by Joanne Yuan and appeared in the Statesman Journal on May 10, 2003.

Joanne Yuan can be reached at (503) 399-6663.
Visit the Statesman Journal online at www.statesmanjournal.com

This story was reprinted with the permission of the Statesman Journal
© Copyright 2003 Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon