Matsui Fellow: Shifting from the Academy to the Capitol

Assemblymember Shirley Weber with Jeff Meyers

Well, here I am—halfway through this internship program, in that phase where the retrospection begins in earnest. Thus far, my time here has been marked by growing comfortable with a world new to me. Of course, that means starting out uncomfortable. Unpleasantly hot weather was one obvious manifestation of this discomfort, as was working a telephone system that originally seemed more complicated than technology I’ve used. Then there is the shift in mindset from an academic setting (where research is relatively nonpartisan) to a capitol that is all about partisanship. In some ways, it’s like transitioning to college all over again: new city, new housing, and a new workplace.

I’m not used to all-day, every-day work schedules, and it definitely took some adjusting to get the routines down quite right. Now I have my system down—from eating breakfast before dressing up for the day (thereby avoiding any inconveniently-timed stains) to going to bed at a consistent, relatively early time. There are still things I’m working out, like the tossup between rushing the last few minutes of getting ready and catching the earlier light rail or continuing at a relaxed pace and waiting for the next train. (Full disclosure: I always choose to hurry out the door, catch the earlier ride, and then end up waiting outside the office for the first staffer to arrive and unlock the door. Go figure.)

More important than these personal scheduling shifts is the different mindset to approach political work than that is expected for political science research. Partisanship is not something to be studied, but rather to be lived—or not, when bipartisanship is called for. Tidy models about median voters are replaced with the messy reality of individuals, competing interests, and politics. Transitioning to this role entails picking up a new set of jargon. While it may not be easy to do this, it is rewarding, especially when you know where to take a folder addressed to E & R in the LOB.

Yet the most moving part of my time here was something far more personal than simply adjusting to a new environment and schedule. Early on the morning of June 17th a container ship collided with the USS Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan. One of the seven dead lived in the district my Assemblymember represents, and I volunteered to put together a memorial speech for him. Combing through the two dozen articles written on the incident to get any personal information I could, I started to feel like I knew him in a peculiar way. I did not know him personally and I cannot imagine the grief that his family and friends must feel. Yet writing a so-called “adjournment in memory” for him was the most emotional and compelling part of my time here.

This internship has pushed me out of my comfort zone in numerous ways, and the result has been personal growth in a corresponding variety of directions. This has been a great way to experience the practice of politics in a way entirely foreign to the lecture hall, and has given me insight into whether I would want to continue in this kind of work. But it is more than that. It really is an opportunity to help people, whether indirectly through policy or more directly through more personal means.