Have you ever wanted to be a part of the local policymaking process, but didn’t know how to get involved?

An outstanding opportunity for locals to leap right into politics, particularly young people, is available now as the Hawaii State Legislature is accepting applications to staff the upcoming 2020 session.

Every year, elected Democrats and Republicans, as well as the numerous support offices within the Capitol, need temporary hires to staff the legislative branch’s operations. As a result, this presents an amazing opportunity to learn about politics, a chance to work side-by-side with elected officials and, in some cases, even a window to influence the agendas of the state.

House Chambers Legislature opening 2019.
The state House offers a great opportunity for people, particularly young people, to learn about government and get involved. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

More Than Just ‘Sausage Making’

There’s an old, cynical saying in politics that “if you like laws and sausages, you shouldn’t watch either being made.”

In reality, as someone who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans, I believe that one of the most enjoyable and educational experiences is to work at the Legislature and to observe the lawmaking process. Not only does it help dispel so many myths about the two-party system, but it allows people to engage in a public service that makes them better citizens and better voters in the end.

The Legislature has numerous temporary positions available, which one can see in detail on the Capitol website, but there are two particular positions that I’d like to recommend to young people. (I mention young people, because these jobs usually don’t pay much, but they do provide excellent experience on a resume.)

• Legislative Assistant/Aide

The first position that young people should definitely consider applying for is the role of legislative assistant, or as we call them on the House side, legislative aides. When people hear the word “aide” most incorrectly dismiss that as someone who just answers phones, prepares the office coffee machine and occasionally prints copies for committee packets. And while some offices may relegate aides to simply doing that, many offices use legislative aides for constituent relations, sometimes sending them to community events on their behalf, where they can work alongside other state, county, federal and private stakeholders.

In some offices, legislators trust their aides to present certificates in the community, give speeches on their behalf or present reports at neighborhood board meetings, and even engage in fact-finding or research assignments. Depending on one’s talents or skill set, legislative aides can even be used as a kind of “special projects director” where they can be given wide latitude in organizing events, building coalitions and giving prepared statements to the media, among other things.

If you’re a recent high school graduate and you’re looking for some legislative experience, one of the best things you can do right now before offices choose their staff is to visit your state senator or house representative, speak with them one-on-one, and offer your services as a legislative aide. In many cases, legislators hire right out of their district because they want their office to reflect their constituency.

Hawaii needs some great young people to advise and serve alongside our elected officials in the big square building.

Legislative offices are such revolving doors that someone could even be a legislative aide one minute, and then the chief-of-staff (office manager) the next!

While many legislative aides do at times have college degrees, in practice, offices often hire people who are willing to work hard, be open-minded, and are enthusiastic about politics. In my last year at the Capitol in 2010, a couple of legislators hired some amazing recent high school graduates as their aides, and these staffers did a great job in a tough session.

• Committee Clerks

Another position available at the Legislature, though potentially offering a slightly higher challenge level is that of committee clerk. Since the Legislature is a Democratic majority, all standing committee chairs and their vice chairs are Democrats, so this is a position that is exclusive, at least for now, to the majority caucus.

Committee clerks, traditionally, are responsible for all the heavy lifting of legislation. If you work for a chair, your job includes drafting all measures (bills and resolutions), writing committee reports, filing important legislative documents, scheduling hearings, and anything else that is policy-related.

The clerks of the House Finance or Senate Ways and Means committees are often regarded as the most powerful and qualified of all because of the intense nature of the subject matter they oversee.

Depending on how much trust exists between a committee chair and their clerk, or how much experience that particular clerk has, sometimes legislators will use their clerks in purely functionary roles, giving all the heavy policy work to the Legislative Reference Bureau or the majority research agencies.

If you work for a vice chair, your role is supporting the chair, which often manifests as being support staff for the needs of the chair’s committee clerk, whatever that might be. In either case, both the chair and the vice chair’s clerks should expect long hours and unpredictable schedules, especially around crossover and final reading.

While not openly advertised, one of the benefits of being either a committee clerk or a legislative aide is that some legislators will ask their session staff for ideas on what they might like to see introduced in the coming year. Said another way, the best way to put your great ideas to work is to work for the Hawaii State Legislature.

Hawaii needs some great young people to advise and serve alongside our elected officials in the big square building. Are you in?

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