STL Today: Missouri legislative internship program still worth it despite risks, former interns say

By Alex Stuckey

JEFFERSON CITY • In 2000, Stephanie Barnes stood in front of a crowd too big for the 9-year-old to count at the state Democratic Party’s Yellow Dog Days and nervously made a proclamation about her impending run for office.

“I have a clear eye on 2020,” Barnes said to the group.

Barnes, now 24, thinks that might be a little soon — but running for office is still a goal. And she credits her 2010 internship in the Missouri Legislature, in part, for stoking her ambitions. “It was a great learning experience,” she said.

This past legislative session, however, showed that the Capitol’s intern program isn’t great for everyone. Former Republican House Speaker John Diehl resigned in May after news broke that he exchanged sexually charged text messages with a 19-year-old intern from Missouri Southern State University. About two months later, Democratic Sen. Paul LeVota announced his resignation after sexual harassment claims made by Alissa Hembree, a University of Central Missouri intern, were partially substantiated by a university investigation.

Now, some are asking if the benefits of the internships outweigh the risks for the more than 100 students who participate annually.

But former interns, legislators and educational experts told the Post-Dispatch they do.

Ending the internship program or putting more restrictions on who can be an intern is like “telling someone who got raped not to wear a low-cut blouse,” said Ali Weinel, another 2010 House intern.

“I learned how government worked firsthand,” she continued. “As voters, we should probably, when something like that happens, do our due diligence and vote for someone else instead of blaming the intern program.”

AGE JUST A NUMBER

Stephanie Barnes was just 18 when she first stepped foot in Democratic state Rep. Terry Swinger’s office in 2010. A freshman studying political science at Mizzou, Barnes had been involved in politics nearly her whole life. With her parents’ guidance, she attended the state Democratic Party gathering, worked a whistle-stop train tour for Mel Carnahan and made phone calls for Barack Obama’s campaign. An internship with the Missouri Legislature seemed to be the next logical step, she said.

The age of interns quickly became a talking point this year after news broke that Diehl had exchanged sexually charged messages with Katie Graham, 19, a Missouri Southern intern. People in and around the Capitol began questioning why someone so young was thrust into that environment.“I don’t know what year (Graham) is … but I wouldn’t want my girls in that building at 19 — they weren’t mature enough,” said Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors. “There’s a lot of opportunity there and, I think, temptation for bad behavior.”

In a May 20 letter sent to new House Speaker Todd Richardson, House Chief Clerk Adam Crumbliss suggested the House set a minimum number of credit hours for interns to have completed “to reduce the exposure to the General Assembly of students not yet mature enough to work in the legislative environment.”

Barnes said that she was mature enough to handle the part-time internship and that her age had been an issue only once, when she couldn’t attend an event because alcohol was being served.

“It’s hard to judge maturity level … it’s hard to be a judge of character, but for me it wasn’t a big deal,” she said.

Ali Weinel, who was 19 when she interned in 2010 in the office of Democratic Rep. Rachel Storch, agrees.

Instead of “limiting an intern’s age … I think we should probably focus on limiting a representative or senator’s bad behavior,” Weinel said. “I didn’t have any problem.”

Both Barnes and Weinel said they were invited to events where drinking took place, but both opted to not attend. And they don’t feel they missed anything because of that choice.

“You’re in the state Capitol with elected officials, so I have that respect as an individual to not make any bad decisions,” Weinel said. “Because some kids are making bad decisions doesn’t mean you should take away the opportunity for people that did make good decisions.”

Interns work with constituents, attend committee meetings and even organize lawmakers’ calendars. But they aren’t immune to stereotypical intern duties such as making copies and getting coffee.

Barnes and Weinel said the experience helped prepare them for the workforce.

Barnes said she could recall only one run-in with a senator, who insulted her and was later made to apologize. It wasn’t enough to detract from her experience.

“It helped me network with a lot of different people and build a lot of relationships that have helped me down the road,” said Barnes, who plans to go to law school before entering politics. Barnes currently works at Lockton Companies in Kansas City.

NOT JUST GOOD FOR INTERNS

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, can see the positive impact internships have for the college students that work in her office. Interns, she said, are not the only ones who benefit from the experience.

“I’ve had some amazing interns,” Schupp said. “They help my office run more smoothly.

”When passionate young people are exposed to the legislative process, Schupp said, they offer new perspectives on issues. She said it would be a shame to see the program shuttered “because of a few bad actors.”

“I don’t think most legislators behave that way,” Schupp said. “Most people respect the young people in the Capitol.”

Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who has had interns in his office in previous years, also thinks the program remains important.

But both lawmakers favor what they call “common-sense” changes in the program to protect college students in the Capitol.

Engler has suggested electronic communication guidelines. A bolstered role for the House Ethics Committee might be in order as well.

“Apparently, we need to have these policies because people are acting irresponsibly,” Engler said. The House needs to make unethical behavior “an exception, and if that means we have to clarify what you can and cannot do and have the committee be the hammer, that’s what we’ll do.”

Schupp said she would be on board with a minimum credit hour requirement but also thought a type of legislative sponsor would help students feel comfortable reporting inappropriate behavior. She also thinks placing a university liaison in the Capitol would help.

“So much of this is common sense,” Schupp said. “But common sense is not enough.”

UNIVERSITY PERSPECTIVES

When Robynn Kuhlmann picks college students for the University of Central Missouri’s intern program, she takes into account their grade-point average, credit hours and references.

As the university’s state government internship coordinator, it’s her job to make sure the best students are sent to represent her school.

But she also researches lawmakers to potentially host these students. The lawmakers’ politics and issues, for example, are taken into account before matching them with student interns. And most of the time, it goes off without a hitch, Kuhlmann said.

“The offices themselves are really, really good in terms of tapping into the skills the students actually have,” Kuhlmann said. “It’s an excellent program, and it has a lot of worth.”

But problems surfaced in March, when Hembree and another Central Missouri intern ended their internships in LeVota’s office. Four months later, LeVota resigned after two reports on investigations into the sexual harassment claims made against the senator by Hembree became public.

The university in Warrensburg sends five to 11 interns to the Capitol each year. Kuhlmann said she was waiting to see what changes the Legislature would make before she adjusted the school’s program in the future.

Shortly after Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, replaced John Diehl as House speaker in May, he appointed Engler to review the House intern policies and draft new ones. An early draft of those policies — which include electronic communication guidelines and an intern ombudsman program — were presented to the House Republican caucus this month. No vote was taken, and it must be circulated among Democrats. The Senate also is examining its policies.

Some freshman Republican legislators reported suggested strengthening the intern dress code as part of the effort. The suggestion created a flurry of negative comments Tuesday, with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., weighing in to say that “victim-blaming in the context of sexual violence is as old as the crime itself.”

“Such a recommendation reeks of a desire to avoid holding fully accountable those who would prey upon young women and men seeking to begin honorable careers in public service,” McCaskill wrote.

At the end of the day, Richardson released a statement noting that a dress code was not part of the recommendations put forth by the group drafting new policies, and that a single dress code already covered House members, staffers and interns equally.

Original Story: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/education/missouri-legislative-internship-program-still-worth-it-despite-risks-former/article_d2839ba9-77b5-53fb-9780-eff98afd8110.html

This post was written by