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Wednesday, May 23, 2007 12:58 am

The intern

I worked for Rich Miller — and survived

Untitled Document I never really wanted an intern. I’m sort of a lone wolf who prefers to work alone. But a longtime friend of mine, Jim Nowlan, pretty much demanded that I take on one of his prize students, Paul Richardson, as an intern this legislative session. I resisted at first but eventually met with Paul and was impressed. I didn’t know the half of it. Paul has been indispensable to me since January. He wakes up early, goes to bed late, and works a whole lot harder than I did when I was 21. He’s smart and a fast learner. He’s always on time. Last week I asked Paul to write a brief article for me about the lessons he’s learned so far. The piece struck a nerve at the Statehouse. People praised it for its keen insight from one so young. I thought you’d like to see it, too, so I asked Paul to expand on the original. Here it is:
After four months under the tutelage of Rich Miller I’ve been blessed to experience more of the Springfield process than many get in a lifetime. I learn a dozen new things each day. The Statehouse is similar to a small town: Everyone knows everyone else (or at least knows of everyone else). Countless hours are spent in hallways, offices, and bathrooms talking about what each person did, what he or she is doing, and what that person thinks he or she will do. In this small town, gossip is a crucial part of the work.
Elected office is still very much a family affair. As I continue to meet more politicians I have learned that, more often than not, their backstory includes a father, uncle, cousin, or close mentor who was elected or was actively involved in the process. That reality is no different than in any other profession. Parents help their sons and daughters by pulling strings all the time, but, correctly or not, the public outcry over political nepotism is more than that over all other occupations combined. At the end of the day, most people involved in the process get along quite well. Republicans and Democrats share poker games, dinners, deep conversations, jokes, and family vacations. Before I got here I bought into the notion of two distinct groups of elephants and donkeys locked in a constant and personal battle. Now I realize that party here is like eye color — often ignored and hard to determine unless you’re looking closely. Money doesn’t dictate everything, but it does dictate most things. The issues that draw the most legislative blood and attract the lobbying kings are those that involve cash — deciding who gets more and at whose expense. The vast majority of contentious bills are pieces of the never-ending fiscal battle royal between the big interests, from hospitals and lawyers to insurance companies and unions. The Statehouse is a large machine fueled by hundreds of bills determining who wins money and who loses money. Public service attracts more criticism and less praise than any other position. No matter what issue or official is involved, critiques will outnumber compliments at least 5-1, and it is often even more lopsided.
Only the most experienced public officials dare to show true emotion in public. Watching floor debates, press conferences, and rallies, it is usually easy to determine whether a politician is speaking from the heart or from the political playbook. Younger officials seem more cautious, careful to say only what they are “expected” to say. The “old bulls” of the General Assembly, worn down by years of frustration and less interested in future climbs up the ladder, occasionally launch into genuine rants. It is only at those moments that I know I am listening to honesty: Brutal but honest. Long-winded but honest. Loopy but honest. It is genuinely difficult for the average citizen to affect policy-making. I have witnessed the steady drumbeat of rallies at the Capitol and been struck by the pessimistic feeling that “None of this really matters.” From education funding to electric-rate relief, I can’t help but notice that these decisions don’t hinge on how many posters are displayed, chants belted, or feet stomped. The problems are complex, and the solutions are even more complex. Only a few individuals truly know why things happen they way they do, and 99.9 percent of Illinoisans will never know.
Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and
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