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The fight for intern pay moves to 2020 campaigns

Eight presidential candidates have committed to paying interns, raising hopes that down-ballot candidates will follow

American University student Rolando Cantu will start a $15-an-hour internship in New Hampshire for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in June. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
American University student Rolando Cantu will start a $15-an-hour internship in New Hampshire for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in June. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

It’s early enough in the 2020 campaign season that many candidates haven’t hired any interns.

But if the early months of the crowded presidential race are any indication, one thing is already clear: More of those offers will come with an actual paycheck. 

Responding to growing political pressure to diversify their teams, eight 2020 hopefuls — all Democrats — have agreed to pay their campaign interns, a move that candidates have long resisted, according to the advocacy group Pay Our Interns. 

Advocates hope the attention to the issue at the top of the ticket, along with the introduction of new paid internship programs for Capitol Hill offices, will pressure other presidential candidates to follow suit and eventually trickle down to House and Senate campaigns. 

“Challenging the presidential campaigns is, to us, a stepping stone to make this an overarching theme,” said Pay our Interns co-founder Guillermo Creamer. “We are trying to get away from connecting the word ‘intern’ with free labor.”

Making a difference

Candidates who have agreed to some kind of intern compensation include Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — who also paid his interns in 2016 — former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, Creamer said.

The five sitting members of Congress in that group —  Ryan, Sanders, Warren, Booker and Harris — also offer paid internships in their Capitol Hill offices, he said. The decision to extend the same opportunities on the campaign trail is an important symbolic step because the pay will come from money candidates raise from supporters — not taxpayers. 

Compensation makes a real difference to interns like Rolando Cantú, who is moving to New Hampshire in June to take a temporary position with Sanders’ communications team.

The job — writing letters to the editor, compiling daily news and helping the field staff — will be valuable experience for Cantú, who is studying international relations and political science at American University.

But he probably would not have been able to take it without the $15-an-hour pay, he said. Cantú is a first-generation college student. His mother is unemployed and his father died when he was young, he said. His family relies on financial help from his aunt, who is a nurse. 

“This reduces the stress and the financial burden of low-income students,” he said. 

That’s a burden some of the candidates know firsthand.

Castro, for example, started his political career in 1994 as an unpaid White House intern in the Clinton administration, spokesman Sawyer Hackett said. At the time, he was attending Stanford on a small scholarship and a big loan.

In January, within weeks of announcing his candidacy, Castro pledged to pay interns and staff members at least $15 an hour and to support campaign workers if they tried to unionize.

“He recognizes that a lot of people who are lower-income may not have access to certain resources and support to get into the political field,” Hackett said. “The barrier that exists there is your ability to pay for yourself.”

Beto O’Rourke spokesman told HuffPost earlier this month that the former Texas congressman would pay his campaign interns, but the campaign has not responded to the Pay Our Interns request, Creamer said. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another 2020 hopeful, offers a paid internship program in her Washington Senate office but has also not responded to the group’s request, he added.

All the 2020 candidates, including President Donald Trump, have been asked to sign the pledge, according to Creamer. 

The Trump campaign did not respond to a CQ Roll Call email asking if its interns would be paid. 

From the ground up

Activists argue that traditional internship programs, which offer college credits, experience and professional contacts, provide unfair advantages to students from wealthy — and often white — families who can subsidize working without a paycheck. Those arguments in recent years have gained traction with a growing number of businesses and political groups.

In Washington, the intern pay movement has been spearheaded by Pay Our Interns, which published a 2017 report that found that the number of congressional offices offering paid internships had plummeted in recent decades as austerity-minded lawmakers looked to free labor to shave their budgets.

In 2017, the study found, just 8 percent of Republican House members and 3.6 percent of their Democratic counterparts paid their interns. Those numbers were slightly better in the Senate, where 51 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Democrats offered paid internships. 

The group did not have data on how many campaigns have paid their interns. Sanders was the only presidential candidate to do so in 2016, Creamer said. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee launched paid internship programs last year, and the Senate and House have both set aside money for intern pay in recent months. 

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