When Jackie Rosen told her family she’d be working in the Utah Capitol as an intern for the 2016 legislative session, her grandma immediately mentioned Monica Lewinsky — a White House intern famously known for her affair with President Bill Clinton, which Lewinsky has since called a “gross abuse of power.”
“I was like, ’Yeah, I don’t really think that’s going to be anything I’m going to experience,’” Rosen recalled with a laugh. “And it totally wasn’t. But definitely there is that perspective because you are the lowest on the totem pole.”
Rosen, who interned for Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, now works in the House of Representatives as a constituent services specialist and credits her experience as a college student in the Legislature with pushing her into politics.
“It definitely gave me a lot of insight into how the Legislature works,” she said, “and also how I could fit into that.”
As the number of female interns working in the Legislature continues to grow, that means more young women than ever have opportunities to engage in Utah’s political arena. But as those demographics shift, and amid the #MeToo movement, lawmakers and intern coordinators are also working to ensure their experiences aren’t characterized by harassment and discrimination.
“As it’s been reported in the media, that has certainly been an issue in Utah, and we are working closely with legislators and with legislative research to make sure that whisper network is not a part of this environment anymore,” said Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
Cotti and Adam Brown, who works in the political science department at Brigham Young University, train most of the nearly 100 full-time legislative interns from around the state.
Their internship experiences are “nearly always positive” and complaints “are rare,” Brown said. He noted that most incidents are small and go unreported, only coming up in casual conversation after the session’s end.
No former interns who spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune said they’d experienced or witnessed any serious forms of discrimination. But Sabrina Dawson, a 2016 intern for Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
“There’s no way that the Utah Legislature is exempt — some anomaly — from the ways of discrimination or passive aggression or any of the stuff that women experience on a day-to-day basis,” said Dawson, who now works in politics in Maryland. “There is no way that the Utah Legislature is some perfect, insulated bubble from all of this.”
‘Naïveté is vulnerability.’
A number of interns have come forward with allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment in state legislatures across the United States amid the #MeToo movement — from New York to California to Kansas and Colorado, to name a few. Since then, a number of those male lawmakers have resigned or been forced from leadership.
In Utah, too, reports of sexual harassment in the Legislature have recently come to light.
One unnamed intern recently told The Tribune about an experience in the 2016 session, when an older lobbyist told her, “Man, if I was 20 years younger, I would take you and push you against the wall and kiss you right now.”
“It just wasn’t fair,” she said. “I wasn’t looked at for my work ethic by the legislators or lobbyists. It was all based on my appearance. It was so unprofessional. They’re preying on people. It’s shocking … to treat the women there like objects.”
At least two other instances of sexual harassment in the Legislature in the past 10 years have also recently been exposed. One complaint from a staffer alleged a lawmaker had called her “honey” and “sweetie,” said it was “nice to have an attractive woman in the front office,” kissed her hand, and, when she complained, told her he would “remember that at your evaluation.”
Interns are among the most vulnerable groups on the Hill when it comes to sexual harassment and discrimination. That’s likely because they’re young and have less experience navigating workplace interactions, Brown said.
“They have a wonderful opportunity to learn from books about how things work before they go into the internship, but books only get you so far and real-world dynamics can be surprising and confusing,” Brown said, adding: “Naïveté is vulnerability.”
But with recent incidents in mind, Brown said he’s glad to see signals from lawmakers that they’re working to address sexual harassment — including a bill in this session that would require lobbyists to take an annual course on appropriate behavior and the move by lawmakers to strip Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, of committee assignments after he made an inappropriate comment to a woman. (Lawmakers also are considering requiring journalists to undergo annual training.)
“For the most part,” Brown said, “a little education will probably deal with a lot of the small [issues].”
‘An avenue for younger women’
During their time in the Legislature, interns have the opportunity to earn real-world experience, connections and inside knowledge. They’re generally assigned to one or more lawmakers and may be required to handle constituent communication, track legislation or research public policy, among other duties.
Lawmakers are able to ask for particular characteristics they want from their interns, according to Jerry Howe, who works in the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel. Those usually take the form of requests for students from a specific area or university or who have particular skills, according to legislative emails requested by The Tribune.
But this year, Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, took a different approach and specifically requested a male intern.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’d prefer a man over a woman,’” he told The Tribune, noting that the #MeToo movement hadn’t crossed his mind when he made that request.
“I tend to just work better with men. But that, I think, is me individually,” he said, adding that he’d had “fantastic” female interns in the past.
When staffers told him they couldn’t discriminate based on gender, he amended his request to specifically ask for skills that would help with his video newsletter. He eventually ended up with a male intern.
The proportion of women interns has grown 10 percentage points since 2013 — from 36 percent to 46 percent, according to a Tribune data analysis of past rosters.
That stands in stark contrast to elected political posts across Utah, where women’s involvement has historically been low compared with other states. And the higher the office in Utah, the fewer women there are.
Just 27 percent of mayors along the Wasatch Front are women, The Tribune has found. In the Legislature, women hold 19.2 percent of seats. All of the statewide elected officials are men, and Rep. Mia Love is the only woman among Utah’s congressional delegation.
The growing female interest in legislative and other political internships may create a pipeline for future candidates, Cotti said.
“We’re seeing more women running for office, more women getting engaged in causes,” she said, “and perhaps this is an avenue for younger women to also become part of the process.”
Rosen, who noted she won’t rule out a run for office someday, said she never would have applied to work in the Legislature had it not been for her internship.
“When I went into session, I knew nothing really about politics,” Rosen said. “And during session it was very hectic and I felt like I still knew nothing through the entire session. And then after session, I was like, ‘Oh, I can track legislation. I know how the budget process works.’ Afterwards, I realized I’d actually learned a ton.”