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Inside Texas Politics

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    Political Science Professor Tim O'Neill stands in the State Capitol with participants in this year's Texas Politics Internship Program.

Southwestern interns get firsthand look at workings of state government

With a new House speaker and a looming budget crisis, this session of the Texas Legislature promises to be an interesting one. And 11 Southwestern students are getting a firsthand view of it.

The students are participants in the Texas Politics Internship Program directed by Political Science Professor Tim O’Neill. Southwestern has been offering the program since the 1960s, and it is believed to be the oldest formal organized internship program in the state capital. O’Neill took over the program in 2003.

At the beginning of the semester, the chiefs of staff for 12 different representatives came to campus to interview prospective interns. Legislators and students were both given the opportunity to pick their preferences for assignments.  “The offices know they will get quality interns from Southwestern because we have such a good track record,” O’Neill said.

Each student participating in the program works 8 hours a week in the office of a state representative. In addition, the students meet once a week for a seminar that is held at the capitol building. O’Neill has lined up a variety of guests to speak to the class, including legislators, officials from state agencies, public policy experts, journalists and lobbyists.

“I try to combine information on how state agencies work with the politics behind policy implementation,” O’Neill said.

A recent seminar session featured a visit from Talmadge Heflin, a former chair of the House Appropriations Committee. Heflin now works for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. Students asked Heflin questions about how the state should handle the economic stimulus money from the federal government, whether Texas should dip into its “rainy day fund” to make up for the budget shortfall, and the future of the Republican Party in Texas.

Heflin gave the students a lot of inside information about how House politics works, including how he lost a seat on the Education Committee after his first term in the House because he voted the wrong way on a major bill. He left the students with some materials his foundation has prepared in response to the current budget situation.

Students participating in the seminar are required to keep “field notes” of contacts they make during their internship as well as a journal with their observations of the legislature. They also are required to interview someone working in their office who is five to 10 years out of college and write a short paper on a legislative topic of their choice.

“The program is a great opportunity for students, especially if they think they want to go into the political environment,” said Maria Kruger, who coordinates the internship program in Career Services.

Kruger said one particularly valuable aspect of the program is that it teaches students the level of professionalism they need to be effective in the political environment.

“When you are representing your legislator, you really have to be on the ball,” Kruger said. “So much rides on first impressions.”

Another valuable aspect of the program is the networking opportunities that are available. Juarez, a sophomore political science major who is interning for Rep. Valinda Bolton of Austin, said he attends receptions every day on behalf of his representative. “I am really getting a lot of networking experience and communication experience,” Juarez said. “This is really important because I will be dealing with this type of environment in law school and hope to be ready and experienced as well.” State Rep. Dan Gattis of Georgetown is serving as the sponsor of the program this year. His sponsorship enables Southwestern to hold the seminar at the Capitol. Two students are interning for Gattis this semester - sophomore political science major Rebecca Lester and junior political science major Staci Rives. “It’s been a great experience,” said Lester, who also hopes to attend law school after Southwestern. “I’m learning that politics is about a multitude of small things that few can see from the outside looking in.” Several alumni of the program have gone on to get good jobs related to Texas politics. In fact, O’Neill rarely visits the State Capitol without running into one of his former students. Kari Torres, a 2006 graduate, is now special/legislative assistant for Rep. Joe Straus, who was recently elected speaker of the Texas House. She divides her time between administrative needs and covering policy related to border, immigration and intergovernmental relations.

“My internship was invaluable in getting a job at the Capitol because it provided me the opportunity to ‘interview’ for an entire semester,” Torres said. “For four months, I was able to prove myself and my abilities to my future employer, while at the same time having the opportunity to explore new things and discover my own passions.”

Jason Embry, a 1998 graduate and program participant, now covers the governor’s office for the Austin American-Statesman. Embry is among the guests who came to speak to the seminar this semester.

And O’Neill has another success story he is proud of. His daughter-in-law, Audrey (Allen) O’Neill, landed a job as a program analyst in the State Auditor’s Office after graduating from Southwestern in 2004. Audrey did an internship with John Keel, who was later named state auditor.