Republicans tout success recruiting Senate Fellows

Republican Senators got a nice early Christmas present this year: seven Senate Fellows placed in GOP offices.

Several Republican legislators were upset last year after only three of 18 members of last year’s Senate Fellows class requested placement with Republican senators. After meeting with staff at the fellows program, they started recruiting — at college Republican clubs, at business schools and via popular conservative blogs.

Each year, the Capital Fellows Program selects 64 candidates from up to 1,000 applicants. Potential fellows apply to any of four separate programs, with 18 spots available in each legislative house and in the governor’s office, and another 10 going to work in the judiciary. Most are in their 20s, though each year there are usually several who are older. Fellows often move on to become full-time staffers.

The program administrators have long noted that while they don’t ask applicants’ party affiliation, they traditionally get far fewer Republican applicants, due mainly to the tendency of conservatives to look for jobs in the private sector.

Still, the lack of placements last year “brought it to a head,” said Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster. “We were really disappointed when it seemed like we weren’t able to recruit.”

While this caused a lot of grumbling among certain GOP legislators and staff, Runner acknowledged that “it’s not a partisan process.” He said he realized the onus was on his caucus to get more conservatives to apply. So he and several other legislators and staff members met with the Capital Fellows staff last winter and took several of its suggestions.

One was to have staff and former fellows communicate and recruit more heavily. This included doing more recruiting at private universities — such as Stanford, Pepperdine and Claremont McKenna — which many believe have a higher number of Republicans than many public colleges. But Runner also cited more outreach at the University of California at Berkeley, which, despite its liberal reputation, has a large and active Republican club.

Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, also wrote an essay, circulated in places like the popular FlashReport blog. He argued that government was a fact of life — and that if Republicans want to influence it and minimize its negative impact, they’d better get involved and learn how it works. One lesson he learned growing up, McClintock wrote, was “the irony that proponents of classical American limited government must participate in government to restrain its appetite for growth.”

McClintock’s article, “Life After College,” was “instrumental” in raising the number of Republican applicants, said Wade Teasdale. A longtime GOP staffer who currently works in the Senate Republican Caucus Policy Office, Teasdale was given the task of helping improve recruitment after last year’s low numbers. He noted that last year was a “perfect storm” of a fairly good economy and a large number of GOP applicants who chose to apply to the Executive Fellows program to work in the governor’s office.

“If you have a Republican governor, you’re going to have competition with the governor’s office in a way you wouldn’t if you had Gray Davis,” Teasdale said.  

While they have no way of knowing the overall proportion of applicants from each party, program administrators did notice a difference.

“We had a much bigger pool to choose from,” said David Pacheco, director of the California Senate Fellows program. “There was a tremendous effort on the part of Republican offices and the Republican Caucus to do recruiting.”

Over the years, the program has frequently been accused of partisanship and other types of bias, said Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University, which administers the program. While they did take the step of recruiting more at business schools, overall there is not much he and his staff can do.

“These are state employees,” Hodson said of the fellows, who receive a state-funded stipend. “It is illegal for us to ask them, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?”

Sometimes it’s obvious, Hodson noted — such as when someone’s application lists them as president of the Republican or Democratic club at their school. But the final candidates are chosen without a preference for party affiliations. They then have a chance to meet with legislators and staff. Fellows list, in order, which offices they would like to work with, and the offices do the same with the fellows.

Hodson said that traditionally the program has been able to place fellows in Republican offices at nearly a rate proportionate to their share of the Legislature. This year, Assembly Republicans also got seven of 18 fellows, so the shares were nearly identical to their representation in each legislative house. Teasdale said Republicans in each house get an average of six fellows per year, and they rarely get fewer than five.

Each year, however, many offices request a fellow and don’t get one. This can lead to grumbling and charges of bias. But Hodson said the program has repeatedly shown that it is protected from “arm-twisting” and getting drawn into partisan battles.

For instance, Hodson said, former Democratic Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, perhaps the most powerful senator in recent memory, tried three times to get favored candidates chosen for the program and placed in his office. In the 1970s, in a famous fight with then-Speaker Bob Moretti, he even cut the program’s funding. Each time, Burton was denied.

Still, some offices have been more successful than others — especially Runner, who has had a fellow nine of his 12 years in the Legislature, going back to when he was in the Assembly. Hodson said both Runner and Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, have reputations for helping their fellows find jobs, either in their offices or elsewhere.

Good reputations work their way through the “fellow network,” Hodson said — while dysfunctional offices or overly intense interviews do as well. This can require a change in mindset among some legislators. Legislators who actually show up to talk to fellows — such as Runner and Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, both did this year — have an advantage; Simitian also got a fellow.
“In most job interviews, you’d be in the driver’s seat,” Hodson said. “These fellows have a lot of other options.”

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