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Hill Climbers: An Office Full of Badgers

University of Wisconsin Badgers are no strangers to the office of Sen. Herb Kohl, which makes sense considering the Wisconsin Democrat is an alumnus of the school. Kohl graduated from Madison with a bachelor’s degree in 1956.

Even though Harry Stein and Karolina Arias have decades of separation from the lawmaker in their college educations, they share the UW tie with their boss. Stein is a 2007 graduate who was promoted from legislative correspondent to defense legislative assistant two weeks ago. Arias is a history graduate who joined the lawmaker’s office as a banking and housing legislative assistant just a week ago.

Although their undergraduate pursuits certainly gave them familiarity with their future boss, the staffers are surprised at the number of Wisconsin ties that life has brought them.

Stein, 24, is a Washington, D.C., native who grew up in the northwest Tenleytown neighborhood. Stein’s parents are graduates of the University of Wisconsin and his younger brother is in the process of completing his freshman year there.

Stein is also one of the rare products of the D.C. Public Schools system who can be found on Capitol Hill. “There aren’t very many D.C. natives up here at all,” he said. “When most people hear that I went to D.C. Public Schools, they are kind of just like, “Wow, there are public schools in D.C. that people graduate from?” That’s all unfair … but outside of the city no one knows.”

Aside from several early childhood years spent in Colombia, Arias’ roots lie in Miami. But even as a native of the Sunshine State, Arias had a family tie to Wisconsin: Her older brother preceded her at the University of Wisconsin and eventually went on to earn his doctorate in political science there.

Both staffers said they still have many friends back in the state and try to travel there at least once a year.

Stein and Arias were influenced early to seek a life in public service.

For Stein, an interest all came down to a junior high field trip: “A group of us went to the Capitol Hill buildings for a day to lobby for D.C. voting rights. Sen. Paul Wellstone was the only person, staff or Member, to take the time to meet with us because, of course, we’re nobody’s constituents. He was really nice and a big supporter of D.C. voting rights. He asked during the meeting if anyone was interested in public service. … It was the first time I realized that good stuff was happening here and that good people were here.”

Arias owes her first brush with politics to a summer at high school debate camp. “My best friend in the debate camp was from Wisconsin and was a page for Sen. [Russ] Feingold [D-Wis.]. I thought that was the neatest thing. I never even knew that you could do something like that. I came up here the year she was a page, and I got to see all of the stuff that she did.”

The staffers’ entrances onto Capitol Hill came through disparate paths, though.

After finishing her undergraduate career, Arias became a Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellow, spending a year in the program designed to teach emerging leaders about domestic hunger. After six months spent in a field placement in Raleigh, N.C., Arias wrapped up her remaining time in D.C. with the Corporation for Enterprise Development.

“When I came to D.C., I saw how everyone was interning in different places,” she said. “I thought it was so neat to work on these issues as a career. When my fellowship ended, I decided I wanted to work on the Hill.”

Arias’ first job came in 2001 through the Senate Banking Committee with former Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.).

Arias would stay there until 2003 when she decided to go back to school. In 2005, she earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Studies.

After a few years in the private sector with a consulting firm, Arias decided to return to D.C. in 2009. This time she rejoined on the federal government side as a staffer in the U.S. Treasury’s Community Development Advisory Board.

“It was a good fit because I dealt with a lot of the issues that I had worked on with Sen. Sarbanes,” Arias said.

Stein followed the internship path to Capitol Hill. While a senior in college, he interned in Kohl’s Madison office. After a good experience in the district office and excitement to actually be involved in the matters that the D.C. office dealt with, Stein headed back to his hometown for another internship.

But he wouldn’t stay there long. After a month back at interning, Stein was hired as a staff assistant in 2007, where he stayed for a year before being promoted to legislative correspondent.

Neither staffer said they were particularly looking for a change in their shuffles with Kohl.

For Stein, the promotion offered the promise of letting him sink his teeth into an issue that affects many Americas.

“With taxes so much of that is up in the air right now and is such a mess. … I hope to help make that more logical,” Stein said.

Arias’ comeback came with a lingering desire. “I kind of missed the rhythm of the Hill. … This job was serendipitous because I wasn’t really looking for something. I had heard great things about working for Sen. Kohl, and I knew people who had been really happy working for him.”

She also said Kohl’s membership on the Banking Committee was another draw. But she might have signed up for more than she bargained for as financial regulatory reform comes in for a finish.

“I’m coming on at a time when a lot of this bill has been written, so I just want to make sure that I keep working with what the Senator has decided to do,” Arias said.

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