A hungry-for-knowledge Derek Kilmer was summoned to the boss’ office back in the summer of 1993. It was his last day interning for Rep. Al Swift, an “old-school” Democrat.
“This is something people in this town would kill to learn, and I’m going to teach it to you,” Kilmer recalls his boss saying, as he pulled out a cigar and showed him how to smoke it.
Those “grab a cigar, grab a martini” days on Capitol Hill are gone, says Kilmer, now a Democratic congressman from Washington state himself. But part of his purpose in Congress is to figure out what relationship-building — not to mention internships — should look like in the present day.
He chairs the House Modernization of Congress Committee, which suggests ways to fix the legislative branch.
Kilmer sat down with CQ Roll Call to talk about his brief stint as a Hill intern and why it sticks with him. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How did you end up interning on the Hill?
A: When I was in high school was right around the time the timber industry kind of took it on the chin in my neck of the woods, and a bunch of my friends’ parents and neighbors lost their jobs. And that really altered my trajectory. When I was in college, my senior thesis was looking at how to help timber towns in Washington state, and I was very conscious of the fact that the decisions being made in Washington, D.C., had a lot of impact. So that’s what spurred me to apply for an internship with the guy who had been my congressman, named Al Swift.
Q: What do you remember about meeting Swift?
A: I didn’t have a ton of interaction with him during my internship. It was on the very last day where I got the longest exposure to him. He invited me into his office and asked about my experience. And then he said, “I’m now going to teach you the most important lesson of this internship.” Then he opened up his desk drawer and said, “I’m going to teach you how to light and smoke a cigar,” which was the first of only two times in my life. So that was not exactly the in-depth policy conversation I was hoping for, but it was a hoot.
Q: What went through your mind as a young intern when he said that? What did that say about Capitol Hill at the time?
A: When I got to Congress [myself later], he was retired but still around, so we grabbed coffee together. One of the things he said had very unfortunately changed about the place was that it's now very uncommon for members to get together and, in his words, grab a cigar, grab a martini, which were his two primary vices.
If you look at the work of the select committee, a lot of it is about trying to drive more collaboration, because it’s no wonder that the place often resembles “The Jerry Springer Show” when people don’t know each other.
We’ve done that on the select committee, had meals together. William Timmons [R-S.C.] will raid his personal wine stock and ply members with beverages. I don’t know that we’re doing that because Al Swift told me to. We’re doing it because there’s value in trying to foster some of those relationships.
Q: What was your day to day like as an intern?
A: It was a lot of, “Hello, Office of Congressman Al Swift, how can I help you?” Back then, email wasn’t really a thing, so our constituent correspondence was almost entirely phone calls and snail mail.
Some of that is still the case, where we have interns working with our legislative correspondent and staff assistant. But technology has made it easier — I would say easier in some respects, because the volume has gone up stupendously. So the select committee has been looking at, OK, how do we use technology to better engage our constituents?
Q: You weren’t getting paid, so where did you live and how did you survive?
A: I lived in the basement of a townhouse with four guys I went to college with, so we were able to split the cost of a summer. My experience with college was largely the experience of taking on tremendous debt, so that just added to it. I lost a fair amount of money that summer, but I gained a good experience. I’ll be entirely candid with you — 19-year-old Derek Kilmer never thought that 20 years later, he would show up in Congress. That wasn’t my life’s ambition. But I’m not sure 39-year-old Derek would have felt as comfortable throwing my hat into the ring if I hadn’t spent a summer there. The old saying is, “It’s hard to be it, if you can’t see it.”
Q: This was the early 1990s. Did you have any very ’90s moments?
A: D.C. is a little bit tough as a young intern, if you’re not yet 21, just from the social standpoint. I couldn’t go to a lot of the activities in the evenings, so that was a drag. This is random, but I remember they had an event focused on getting young people involved in the political arena, and I showed up at that and thought it was actually really cool. They had Andrew Shue, who played one of the characters on “Melrose Place,” one of the hopping shows at the time.
Q: Is there anything you look back on and say, wow, that just would not happen today?
A: That was still in the day where offices would get tickets to stuff, like a ballgame or concert. I think I went to some show at Wolf Trap that the office got gifted, and obviously that doesn’t happen now.
Now I will do regular check-ins with our interns, just to say, “How’s it going?” so they feel like they’re getting a chance to engage me and really suck the marrow out of the place. I’m not sure I got that experience.
What we’ve said is, “If there’s a meeting on my calendar that you want to be a fly on the wall, let us know.” I remember having a meeting with an ambassador on a really substantive topic, and as we walked out, my intern was like, that was really cool. We’re trying to provide more opportunities for our interns, and moreover, we pay them.
Q: What other ways have you brought your intern past into the present?
A: Earlier this year, [the Modernization Committee] made a number of recommendations related to internships, like looking at the cost of living. We recommended that the House should set up an intern and fellowship program office to help with onboarding and professional development, and that committees should be empowered to compensate interns [much like member offices were starting in 2019].
It’s important that we have a Congress and staff that looks like America, racially, ethnically and socioeconomically. It’s a problem if internships are available only to the children of wealth. My office just hired, as a scheduler, someone who had been an intern in our office. So, internships can be a foot in the door, and you want to make sure everybody has a shot.
Beyond that, making sure it’s not just cheap labor and busywork, but that young people are given professional development opportunities. I really think it’s important that Congress be an example of good employers, not bad ones.