Dean Phillips still remembers playing softball as an intern and seeing his boss there to cheer him on.
“He really paid attention,” he says. “I think any staffer or intern on Capitol Hill hears stories about certain offices, and I was very fortunate.”
Phillips worked for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., during the summer of 1989, between semesters at Brown University. The son of a prominent liquor dynasty, he would go on to lead a gelato company and a coffee chain. But Phillips still describes his intern days as “the greatest summer of my life.”
Three decades later, the Minnesota Democrat found himself back on the Hill as a member of Congress. He now plays for his party’s team in the annual Congressional Baseball Game, though he calls himself “a below average baseball player and an average softball player.”
“I credit my internship in ’89 with ultimately bringing me back to Congress, and I absolutely credit the 1989 Leahy softball team with opening the door to my much less remarkable congressional baseball career,” he said.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How did you land your internship with Leahy?
A: I have to go way back. My grandmother was the advice columnist Dear Abby. When I was in the sixth grade, John Anderson, the former Republican congressman from Illinois who was running for president, came to my school and spoke. And that night, we were having a family dinner, and my grandma asked about my day and said, “Before you continue, are you a Democrat or Republican?” I didn’t know. And she said, “You’re a Democrat.” So she anointed me a Democrat when I was 11 years old.
Nine years later, I was having dinner with her again, and she asked what I was going to do that summer as a junior in college. She knew Patrick Leahy a bit and said I should apply for an internship on Capitol Hill. So I did, and that became the greatest summer of my life until joining Congress myself in 2019.
Q: What was a typical day like?
A: My first day was memorable, because I got there a half-hour early to make sure I could get in the building and get situated. And I’m glad I did, because I was sweating through my suit. It was the first one I’d ever bought, an olive green double-breasted suit. So I sat in a marble restroom in the Russell Building for about 20 minutes before I walked in the office, trying to cool down.
The first thing I was taught was how to use the autopen, which kind of surprised me because I thought everything signed by a member of Congress was done by hand. Every office had one, this old 1980s mechanism. You would push a button, and it was almost like a player piano, where it would mimic his signature. I signed a lot of autopen signatures and handled constituent correspondence, which back then was all phone calls and letters.
Q: Where did you live?
A: A buddy and I found a place to rent for the summer next to the Watergate. It’s still there, the Columbia Plaza. I think it’s probably fancier now than it was then. I remember having to rent a mattress and couldn’t take the plastic off or we’d have to buy it. We had two bedrooms, and one friend stayed on the couch.
Q: Did you hold a second job or anything like that?
A: No. And in fact, that’s why I’ve been such an advocate for Congress to be much more intentional about both compensating and supporting interns through either private programs or public with housing, because in my estimation, for generations, interns were limited to those who had families that could support them, which was not fair. In hindsight, it was remarkably stark.
Q: Is that something you talked about with your fellow interns at the time?
A: I remember having conversations about how lucky we were to be able to do this, and I remember thinking just how remarkably white and male Capitol Hill was. Sen. Leahy was more intentional than some in trying to recruit, and I think we had two women in our intern cohort. But I saw very few interns of color. Now I look around and look at my own intern cohorts, and it’s a world of difference.
For generations, internships were just responsive. Those who were connected, their kids applied, but it wasn’t even a possibility for an overwhelming majority of young people throughout the country. We still have a long way to go, but we absolutely have made progress.
Q: What moments stick with you from your intern days?
A: What was so wonderful about the senator was he really paid attention to his interns. We had lunch, and he would come out and join our office softball team.
I remember other senators who were extraordinarily kind, but some who were famous at the time were quite rude. The most friendly was David Boren, a senator from Oklahoma. Many senators would ask you to step out of the elevator if they were in there with other senators, but he said, “No, get back in and let’s chat.” But Sen. Al Gore wasn’t terribly friendly. I remember he told me to get out of the elevator once, and I just never forgot it.
Q: So that’s one lesson you learned — if you shoo an intern out of the elevator, they might remember.
A: Not only might they remember, they might come back as a member of Congress. And I mean this so sincerely. Anytime an intern comes to the elevator, I always make a point to invite them in, because of Sen. Boren.
Q: Leahy loves photography and always has a camera with him. Did you ever carry it for him?
A: I never carried his camera, but I took a picture at his desk. One day when the senator went to lunch, a fellow intern grabbed me and said, “Hey, I brought my camera to work today. Take a picture sitting at the senator’s desk.” I was a rule follower, but I did it. I put my feet on Sen. Leahy’s desk, took a picture and for the very first time in my life felt both a semblance of extraordinary responsibility and power sitting in that chair.
And I never forgot it. About six months ago, my wife and I saw the senator in the Capitol and he took us to his hideaway, and I finally had the courage 30 years after being his intern to show him the black-and-white photo of me sitting at his desk with my feet up on it. And he laughed like Santa Claus.