Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) wants to do more than just advance the Democratic agenda in the Senate. He also hopes to change the very face of senior staffs on Capitol Hill by dramatically increasing the level of diversity.
The brainchild of Chief of Staff Susan McCue, the Harry Reid-Howard University Leadership Internship was created in the fall of 2000. Each semester one student is chosen to work in Reid’s leadership office; a small stipend is provided to ensure that finances are not a barrier to participation.
McCue said she “saw a need to provide greater access to the halls of Congress for young African-Americans. … The internship program was set up to do that.” She hopes that this exposure would then lead to more students considering careers in public service.
Lorenzo Morris, who currently heads the political science department at Howard, is in charge of choosing students to participate. “Typically, only honor students are chosen. Those with the best grades and good writing skills” compete for the position, Morris said.
He went on to add that although Howard has “tons of internships, this is a prime one, because it is paid and because it is not garbage work, like going to get people coffee. It has been a positive relationship for us.”
Alvin Thornton, now an associate provost at Howard, helped institute the program while chairing the political science department. Thornton said it is important to fight the “dearth of diversity” on Capitol Hill, noting it is “critically important” to get students interested in public policy when “they are freshmen and sophomores, because it is not the first place they look.”
Instead of the public sector, Thornton saw many black students interested in government heading for K Street. “There’s something more important than salary; public policy is important as well,” he said.
Reid felt that presenting opportunities tailored to reaching the minority community was the surest way to increase minority representation on the Hill, according to Waldo McMillan.
McMillan is a prime example of this concept. After participating in the program in 2001 and then graduating from Howard, McMillan attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Instead of taking a high-priced private-sector job, he decided to return to Reid’s office as a leadership assistant.
Most important among the lessons learned in his first go-round was the “value of relationships,” McMillan said. “Being able to work in the leadership, I had exposure to different people and different offices.”
And now, McMillan believes that the program “helped shape my view, as far as knowing that working in public policy is something I would want to do.”
Another participant in the program is Jacques Purvis, who enjoyed his time in Reid’s office so much he participated in it for two successive semesters, calling it “one of the best experiences of my life. It was an opportunity to understand not only government, but politics; the inner workings and how it helps every individual.”
When asked what he will do upon graduation this spring, Purvis said that he would “definitely consider coming back,” though he mentioned that he was also contemplating giving back to the community by participating in the Teach for America program.
Among Hill offices, Purvis says there is definitely “a need for diversity. There has been much improvement because of programs like this, but we definitely need to continue this program.” He also suggests creating similar programs aimed specifically at increasing gender and socioeconomic diversity.
Senate Republicans are in the preliminary stages of creating a similar program. For the past seven years, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has arranged meetings with the presidents of historically black colleges and Republican politicians.
According to a GOP aide, Santorum will use the contacts he has created in the HBC community to place one student from those schools in “every single Republican office.” He says that there has already been a “high level of interest. … The goal is to expose minority students from HBCs” to as wide a number of Senators as possible.
The Senate program will mirror, and share the name, of a similar institution run by the House GOP. The House program, named after 19th century Republican Rep. Joseph Rainey (S.C.), has placed minority students in Republican offices for a number of years. Two years ago, more than 75 students applied for the program. While only seven were chosen to participate in that specific program, many more were offered positions throughout the House.