Capital Fellows Programs celebrate diversity

Fifty years ago, Carmen Hews and Ruth Ross arrived in Sacramento, two of the first class of eight Assembly interns. Hews and Ross were quite remarkable and their participation was equally remarkable.

They were remarkable women because of their determination to forge government careers at a time when government was regarded as a man’s world. The decision to select them was also remarkable given that of the 120 members in 1957, exactly two were women. Remarkable also because the expressed purpose of the Assembly internship program (now the Jesse M. Unruh Assembly Fellowship Program) was to create the nucleus of a professional staff at a time when the small handful of professional-grade staffers were all white men.

Hews and Ross also presaged the important and ongoing role of the four Capital Fellows Programs (the Assembly plus the Executive, Judicial Administration and Senate Fellows Programs) in bringing into state service women, African-Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders, Latinos and other under-represented groups.

California’s changing demographics and the election of more women and people of color certainly has profoundly affected the composition of legislative staff.

The Capital Fellows Programs, however, have long been vital in continuing pathway of inclusion. More than 1,300 have served as Fellows and three in five have been women and more than two of five people of color. Fellows have come from Harvard and Cal State Bakersfield, Berkeley and Point Loma Nazarene, Spelman and Stanford. Fellows have come from Atherton, as well as Compton. They have been 20-year-old college grads and 60-year-old retirees. The Capital Fellows Programs often better reflected California than the Legislature itself. For example, the first class of 16 full- and part-time Senate Fellows in 1973-74 included five women and two Latinos, when the Senate then had neither women nor Latino members.

The pathway pioneered by Hews and Ross opened the doors for hundreds of other women, African-Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders and Latinos. Betty Yee is now the chairwoman of the State Board of Equalization, but her career started as a Senate Fellow. Eric Guerra first heard of the Fellows when he was a janitor at Sac State. He’s now a top legislative staffer. Bobby Blanks was raised in central L.A., and after his Executive Fellowship went on to work for Maxine Waters and the city of Los Angeles. Indeed, six of the nine former fellows who are state or federal elected officials are women or people of color.

But the Capital Fellows Programs was not always consistent. The second class of Assembly Interns was all-male, and it took most of the 1960s before there were African-American, Asian Pacific and Latino interns/fellows. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, diversity was a given and Fellow classes continued to anticipate population changes. The inaugural class of Executive Fellows in 1986-87 was 60 percent women and about 40 percent people of color, which definitely did not mirror the Deukmejian administration or the offices of other constitutional officers. Similarly, the Senate Fellows class of 1993-94 was 50 percent women, and at least 45 percent people of color while only 20 percent of the Senate were women and/or people of color.

This pattern slowed in the late 1990s as the traditional low-keyed and program-specific recruitment failed to keep pace with societal changes. With the help of Assembly and Senate staff, the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State, which has administered the Capital Fellows Programs since 1984-85, transformed its efforts into an aggressive, well-planned and effective recruitment plan. The results were impressive: Since 1998-99, both the applicant pools and final fellow classes for all four Capital Fellows Programs have averaged 50 percent people of color and more than 50 percent women.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Assembly Fellowship Program, the 35th of the Senate Fellows, the 22nd of the Executive and the 10th of the Judicial Administration Fellowship Program, as well as the 25th anniversary of the Center for California Studies. A Center/Capital Fellows Anniversary Celebration on June 8, which has sold out, will commemorate current and past fellows and the work of the Center. The evening will be particularly special as Ruth Ross and two other women from the first years, Lou Cohan and Barbara Springer, will be there to enjoy old friends and accolades.

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