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‘Really formative’: Rep. Nikki Budzinski on being an intern

Illinois Democrat worked for Dick Gephardt and ‘pragmatic progressive’ Paul Simon

Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Ill., seen here in March 2023, is serving her first term in Congress. She still remembers being an intern on the Hill as a teenager.
Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Ill., seen here in March 2023, is serving her first term in Congress. She still remembers being an intern on the Hill as a teenager. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Democratic Rep. Nikki Budzinski remembers being a little “starstruck” by the lawmakers she saw coming and going from Dick Gephardt’s leadership office when she was an intern in the ’90s. “It just speaks to the fact I was 18,” she says.

Before she was elected to Congress, Budzinski worked in the labor movement, on presidential campaigns, for current Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and as chief of staff for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. But she still connects her political path to her time on the Hill as a teenager.

That includes interning for Democratic Sen. Paul Simon, who represented her home state of Illinois and whose “pragmatic progressive” identity influenced her own. She points to him as the kind of public servant she hopes to be.

“If we were all a little bit more empathetic and kind to each other, we would find more common ground to get things done, and more civility,” she says. “That’s who I think Paul Simon was.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You interned for House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt. How did that happen?

A: It was the year after the ’94 election, where the Democrats had lost control. I got the opportunity to intern in his leadership office, and I look back on my experience as really formative.

I was just graduating from high school. I applied, and interestingly, I knew his daughter as well. She and I went to high school [together], so she was a friend of mine, and she helped introduce me to her dad.

Q: What moments stand out from that time?

A: The job that I did was press clips, you know what I mean? Very basic, but it was really about exposure to the work of the office, and that was inspiring. I just remember seeing these congressmen and women come in and out as they were meeting with him, and there’s a bit of being starstruck. 

When I interned, David Plouffe worked for him, and he obviously went on and did great things for President Obama. 

And this is before iPhones, but Leader Gephardt did weekly radio interviews, and I got to take notes. I don’t even know that my notes were particularly that great, but I got to see an elected official conduct interviews, how he handled himself.

Q: What did you do next?

A: I went to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and then in 1996, I interned for Sen. Simon. It was the last year of his tenure in the Senate, and he was a larger-than-life figure.

I would like to consider myself as kind of a pragmatic progressive, and I think that’s who Paul Simon was. He was very much for balanced budgets, but was socially progressive, and coming from southern Illinois, that was an interesting profile. 

And actually, I kept in touch with him after I interned. I became the president of the College Democrats at the University of Illinois, and when I got elected, I wrote him a note. I still have this letter. I just shared that I was getting more involved on campus, and he wrote me back.

When people ask me now, “Who is the kind of public servant you would like to emulate?” I always say Paul Simon. At the time, I wouldn’t have known it, but it led me on a trajectory to, many years later, running for office.

Budzinski interned for Paul Simon in 1996, during his last year in the Senate. (Courtesy Nikki Budzinski)

Q: Most internships in the ’90s were unpaid. How did you manage that?

A: I worked another job. I was a barista, and I worked at a coffee shop called Cafe Northwest. I don’t think it exists anymore. That was one of the things that, looking back, was an obstacle to a lot of people getting into internship opportunities.

Q: What made you want to run for Congress yourself?

A: A lot of the issues I work on today have a connection to what I did in [my early career in] Washington, working for the firefighters’ union and also the United Food and Commercial Workers union. 

But it wasn’t until I worked as a chief of staff at OMB that I [wanted to run]. I truly had never thought about doing it, but I was inspired by what the Biden administration was doing with the American Rescue Plan and helping communities come out of COVID stronger. 

You can imagine when I told friends and family I’m going leave this great job in the White House and come home and run for Congress, there were some head scratches. But I was inspired. 

Q: You were at OMB for about six months. What did you learn from that?

A: It was right after former President Trump, and there was no transition for the Biden administration. We barely got the code to the bathroom. 

I had run Gov. Pritzker’s transition, and the former Republican governor was very helpful and cooperative. His team worked seamlessly with us, because they believed in good government, and they wanted to set us up for as much success as we could have. And when I juxtapose that to [the presidential transition], and that lack of cooperation, continuity was a real challenge. 

One of the things that really struck me was the professionalism of the career staff within OMB. They had just experienced almost a traumatic experience, for lack of a better way to describe it, in the previous administration. And so when we came in, it became very clear that rebuilding morale was important, and we had a short amount of time to get this skinny budget done. But the career workforce was impressive.

Q: Have you had any full-circle moments since you were elected to Congress?

A: I’ve seen Gephardt since I was elected. I didn’t think he’d remember me, but I reintroduced myself to him and was, “See, I’m an intern that made good.” It was funny. Wiley Nickel was an intern for him as well, though not at the same time, so he and I are both plugged into the Gephardt alumni group.

One other thing that just recently happened was I went on a civil rights pilgrimage that John Lewis led for a long time. I went on it many, many years ago, when I worked for the labor movement here in Washington, and we crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And so I did that again, just a few weeks ago. And it was wild — I never would have thought I would return as a member of Congress.

If we were all a little bit more empathetic and kind to each other, we would find more common ground to get things done, and more civility. And that’s who I think Paul Simon was, that’s who Gov. Pritzker is, that’s who Joe Biden is. So I’ve been very lucky to have these different experiences, and I hope that makes me a more effective legislator. 

And it really started when I was a senior in high school going into my college year working for Gephardt. Sometimes in life, it’s funny, you never can connect the dots until you look back. 

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