Capitol Hill seems a swamp where partisan throat-grabbing is routine. But peek behind the angry speeches and taunts, and there’s a quiet effort afoot to promote bipartisanship among ambitious up-and-coming interns.
Nasya Blackwell arrived on Capitol Hill in May expecting Democrats and Republicans to constantly be at each others throats, just like it seems on television news shows.
“My perception beforehand was them not being able to agree on a lot of issues or have a willingness to work with each other,” Blackwell recalled. “Now I see something different.”
Instead, Blackwell, a North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University junior, is part of a unique internship program designed to give students from North Carolina’s historically black colleges and universities exposure and experience in working on both sides of the congressional aisle.
Reps. Alma Adams, D-Charlotte, and Mark Walker, R-Greensboro, created the HBCU Bipartisan Congressional Internship Program last year to promote better understanding in today’s politically fractured environment – and encourage increased diversity in the mostly-white congressional staff workforce on Capitol Hill.
“You hear a lot of stuff in the news, that we can’t get along, we do this, we do that,” said Adams, a member of the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus with Walker. “We wanted to interest HBCU students in public service in Congress and at the same time they can gain valuable experience in possible careers in government and policy.”
Under the eight-week paid program, Blackwell and Dariana Reid, a political science junior at Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University, will spend four weeks working in the offices of Adams and Walker, performing tasks ranging from answering constituent phone calls to conducting Capitol Hill tours. Then they’ll swap offices for another four weeks.
“It’s huge, especially right now in our culture, that people see the human component as opposed to the partisan element that you’re hearing on a talk show or news program whether it’s on the right or left,” Walker said. “When you have the luxury of being able to work several weeks in both offices, it does give you a different perspective.”
Blackwell, 20, is finishing up working for Walker, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee. She admits that being in a GOP office is a politically different world for someone whose mother once served as a campaign manager for Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Blue Dog Democrat from Georgia.
“I’ve never felt uncomfortable in this situation, and I’ve never felt like I couldn’t say my opinion or that I couldn’t be included in conversations about things I might not agree with,” she said. “At the end of the day, you’re representing the office that you’re in. So I had to learn that, even when I didn’t agree with the situation, when constituents call, I’m representing Congressman Walker.”
Reid, 20, another Democrat, said working in Adams’ office was fun once she got over initial worries about whether staffers on Capitol Hill would be accepting of a young African-American woman who is openly gay.
“I thought there would be reservations, but I haven’t felt that at all,” she said. “The people I’ve interacted with could care less. They just look at my work ethic.”
Reid and Blackwell said they saw first-hand just how close Republicans and Democrats can be after the recent shooting attack at the GOP baseball team’s practice field in Alexandria, Va.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and four others were wounded when James T. Hodgkinson opened fire on the lawmakers. Scalise was listed in fair condition Friday at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
Hodgkinson, who belonged to a number of anti-Republican groups, died from return gunfire from Capitol Hill Police officers assigned to protect Scalise.
Reid said that while Republicans may have been Hodgkinson’s target, the shooting affected everyone in Congress, regardless of party affiliation. She was touched over how quickly a blood drive was established for the victims and by the bipartisan tributes and prayers for Scalise.
“The issue affected one side, but it affected everyone,” Reid said. “Being inside this office, being inside this building, being on the Hill, I expected nothing less. At the end of the day, we’re all human.”
Reid and Blackwell have big plans once they graduate from Smith and N.C. A&T. Reid wants to become an Air Force judge advocate general and eventually a Supreme Court justice. Blackwell aspires to be a State Department lawyer and ultimately president of the United States.
Adams and Walker hope that the internship will inspire Reid and Blackwell to consider returning to Capitol Hill to work in the House or Senate full time. Diversity – or the lack of it – in congressional offices has been a problem for years
Staff, especially at the senior level, influence senators and House members and play key roles in shaping and writing legislation.
“It’s one thing to hear about a problem that’s going on in under-represented communities, it’s another to actually have someone who may have lived that,” said Reid, who said she’s open to exploring congressional staff work. “They would be able to better relate to the issue at hand.”
A 2015 study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on minority issues, found that African-Americans make up less than one percent of top Senate staffers despite representing 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Statistics for the House of Representatives weren’t readily available. But the number of minority staffers in the chamber is low enough that it prompted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to launch a House Democratic Diversity Initiative last month.
The initiative has a full-time staffer responsible for placing minorities in staff jobs at all levels. The effort will employ the so-called “Rooney Rule” used by the National Football League.
The rule, named after the late Pittsburgh Steelers Owner Dan Rooney, requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for any head coaching or senior operations position.
While Pelosi’s initiative is one potential pathway to Capitol Hill staff jobs for minorities Adams, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Walker hope that their internship program will become a model and provide another avenue.
“We’ve just got to find a way to engage students at historically black colleges and universities in understanding a little bit more about Hill relationships, Congress, and how they can get involved in the process as workers, as staffers,” Adams said.