By Erica Costa | Special to CalMatters
With the partisan polarization evident in the Capitol, is there an entry-way into the political and policy world that appeals to adherents of both major political parties?
In particular, with Democrats holding all the reins of power, is there a path that can be as rewarding for young Republicans as for young people from the majority party?
These questions intrigued me, as I went through the Assembly Fellowship Program in 2007, and became the focus of my master’s thesis inquiry.
California’s Assembly Fellowship Program is one of the oldest programs of its type in the country. Bachelor degree-holding individuals can spend a year in the legislative office of their choosing while receiving academic training. Hundreds of people apply for 18 slots.
With California increasingly dominated by Democrats, I wondered if the program was as meaningful for Republicans assigned to Republican legislators, who face challenges getting their bills enacted into law.
For my Sacramento State master’s thesis, I conducted a 14-question survey of former fellows, with an additional option to participate in a phone interview. I was able to reach a large pool; 146 former fellows responded. About twice as many Democrats as Republicans participated, which matched the party proportions of most fellowship cohorts.
I asked only one question about partisanship, because I did not want to bias responses by making evident the primary interest in partisan differences and similarities. The core of the survey was the question: what was your fellowship experience like?
I was prepared to find divergent opinions.
Instead, I found that fellows of both parties had overwhelmingly similar and positive experiences.
More than 90% of Republicans and Democrats said the fellowship exceeded their expectations. Large majorities of fellows from both parties indicated the fellowship sparked increased interest in politics. That portion was actually slightly higher among Republicans.
Additionally, about nine in 10 Democrats and an even higher portion of Republicans indicated the program increased their professional confidence. Nearly all fellows reported collegial office placements.
Fellows of both parties were offered positions post-fellowship at strikingly similar rates. Despite majority party status, Democrats did not receive a significantly higher number of jobs after their fellowships ended.
Fellows from both parties were offered and took positions in the Legislature. If fellows did not take positions in the Legislature, they reported leaving to pursue school or other personal business. Only 6% of Democrats and 4% of Republicans said the Legislature was “not a fit.”
Party identification was not entirely irrelevant, but it mattered mostly in terms of perception of minority party disadvantage, and a perception of majority party advantage.
Republican and Democratic fellows believed their party identification made their experience at least somewhat challenging. Fewer Republicans than Democrats felt their party identification was irrelevant to their experience. Perhaps this is because the skills and attributes people gain are similar even if there are differences in ability to help push through legislation.
Differences between Republicans and Democrats permeate much of what occurs in the Capitol. But it is reassuring that a professional training program can prepare people for meaningful careers in a highly charged partisan atmosphere, regardless of their party affiliation.
The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.
Erica Costa worked in the California State Assembly for over a decade and is now an advocate for the American Lung Association, firstname.lastname@example.org. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.