By Kris Kitto - 02/23/09 07:51 PM EST
Australians interning on Capitol Hill this winter say the biggest surprise about American politics is how friendly people are. Even after a run-in with Rahm Emanuel.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Are you English? Are you Australian?’ ” says 19-year-old Alex Maschmedt of his phone conversations with Rep. Mike Castle’s (R-Del.) constituents. “I find that if people do pick up on the accent, they haven’t reacted any other way than very friendly.”
His countryman John Fowler, 23, an intern for Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), says he was taken aback by the collegial atmosphere in Congress.
“I expected it to be a bit more rigid,” he says, adding that he was pleasantly surprised to see that many lawmakers don’t take themselves too seriously.
Perhaps Maschmedt, Fowler and the 10 other Australians here as part of the Uni-Capitol Washington Internship Program are being generous with their compliments. Their two-month-long stints have already exposed them to the friendly and not-so-friendly aspects of politics in America, yet they nearly always seem to find the bright side.
Victoria Foxton, for instance, was stuck in the infamous Purple Tunnel of Doom during President Obama’s swearing-in.
“It was an absolute shame,” says the 24-year-old intern for Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).
Nevertheless, she soaked up the experience.
“It was incredible how happy people were,” she says.
Bridget Mangan survived a call from a harried White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and now laughs about it.
“One night I was tired, and there was a phone call,” recounts the 20-year-old intern for Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). The man on the line was speaking very quickly, she says, and she couldn’t make out his name.
“He wanted to speak with the congressman — he did not want to speak with an intern — and the congressman wasn’t in, so I said, ‘Sorry, he’s not in at the moment,’ ” Mangan recalls.
Emanuel briskly hung up, she says, and it wasn’t until she discussed the call with her co-workers that she realized who he was.
“Yeah, I was told afterward,” Mangan says sheepishly.
Such experiences are part of the beauty of the program, says Eric Federing, founder and director of Uni-Capitol.
“It’s this sense of personal growth, enterprise and being able to represent yourself so well so young,” says Federing, a former Capitol Hill staffer who now directs the government affairs office at the tax firm KPMG.
Federing started the program after vacationing in Australia in 1992 and noticing from Australians both a curiosity regarding American government as well as misinformation about his home country.
He returned to Australia several more times and began mulling the idea of an exchange between the two countries.
Federing, who worked for Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and former Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), looked no further than the place where he had spent several years of his career.
“I believe Congress is one of the great meeting places on this planet,” he says.
Federing contacted the Australian friends and acquaintances he made during his trips there, pitched the idea to his Capitol Hill colleagues and, in January 2000, hosted the first group of interns as part of his new program.
Federing donates all of his time to organizing the program, and now has some 60 yearly applicants from whom to choose 12 participants, who fund the internship on their own. Federing custom matches the interns to a participating congressional office according to their goals and interests.
Many lawmakers see the value of the cultural exchange.
“We have found it very helpful,” says Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who recalls having hosted at least two or three Australian interns.
“They’ve been able to provide some diversity” in the office, and have exposed his staff to different points of view, he says.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) agrees that it has been nice to get “input from someone from that part of the world.”
“It’s an incredible insight in our office,” he says.
This year’s interns watch their bosses closely and have seized on the opportunities their offices have given them. One intern couldn’t attend a group interview with The Hill because he was accompanying House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to the Democratic retreat in Virginia.
Another is extending her internship in Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) office beyond the Feb. 27 end date.
Federing also leads the group on trips to Philadelphia and Gettysburg, Pa. But even a normal day in Nadler’s office provides a great learning opportunity, Mangan says.
“I find Nadler incredibly interesting — his work on the Judiciary Committee and the subcommittee on the Constitution and civil rights,” she says. “He’s dedicated to the people he represents, and I find that inspiring.”
Fowler has had an enjoyable time feeding off Sanchez’s energy.
He says he has been impressed by “just how much Loretta’s personality rubs off on the office.”
“It’s laid-back, it’s fun, everyone’s pretty easygoing, we all work pretty hard,” he says. “It’s a really great environment to work in, and I think it’s directly because of the person she is.”
One of Maschmedt’s highlights in Castle’s office was a trip to the congressman’s district before Inauguration activities. He helped the congressman distribute tickets to his constituents.
“It was extremely interesting to see people’s faces,” Maschmedt says. “I never expected in my life I’d end up in Wilmington, Del., handing out tickets to the Inauguration.”