Monday, January 9th will be my last day as a legislative aide for Senator Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage). When I walked into the Capitol my first day as an intern, I did not know what to expect. As an outsider, my limited expectations were shaped by the many political TV series I watched on Netflix and the talking heads on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. While you occasionally feel like you are living in an episode of VEEP, the real experience is much different.
I began working as a legislative intern in 2017 and then, following graduation from UAA with a Political Science degree, worked full time for five regular sessions and eight special sessions. I began my political career in a turbulent political climate both in Alaska and the nation. I have worked for the Legislature through three U.S. presidents, two governors, two state House speakers, and three different state Senate presidents. Additionally, there have been 39 new members of the Alaska State House and 13 new members of the Alaska State Senate since January 2017.
I get asked all the time about what it is like to work in the Legislature. I usually tell people it depends on the day. Some days you have only a few hours to try and become an expert in trust decanting bills that you are completely unfamiliar with, other days you feel like a private investigator diving into background research on a commissioner’s confirmation hearing, while other days are spent as a travel agent, graphic designer, photographer, journalist, or social worker.
Overall, I have enjoyed my time as a legislative aide. The job can be extremely rewarding when you know you played a role in creating good policy for the state or helped a constituent get their PFD when the state erroneously withheld it. But parts of the job can be frustrating and take a toll on the intentions with which you first walked through the door.
During legislative sessions, Juneau becomes a legislative bubble for staffers. Many staff come from across the state, live in temporary housing (often with other staff as roommates), spend all day working together and then go out to dinner and socialize. I have developed great friendships with many staffers of all political backgrounds and beliefs. There is often an outside perspective that politicos socialize only within their own camps, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Juneau is too small, and life is too short. Friends are never going to agree on everything, and it would be boring to only associate with people who agreed on everything. I have sincerely enjoyed the many friendships, conversations, and debates I’ve had with people across the aisle. Relationships are key if you want to be successful at your job. When you can set aside politics, you learn how to be a better staffer.
In addition to working with great people, you also get to learn about the internal functions of our state government. Each day the Legislature hears from experts from across the state and nation. These people share their experience and knowledge on various policy issues in the hopes that you consider their expertise when crafting good policy for the state. If you put in the time you can learn more by sitting in a committee hearing than you can on a college campus. If you want to become an expert in a policy area the resources are available at your fingertips. It is a great feeling when you can work with policy experts, legislators, and staff to pass good legislation for the benefit of the state while also expanding future opportunities in your field of interest.
Many of the reasons I loved this work in the beginning are no longer a reality in Juneau. A lot of legislative work depends upon relationships. COVID-19 is partially to blame for the lack of socialization, but there is also a growing hyper-partisan climate in Juneau. People are less open to crossing the aisle for a beer or even being civil to each other. Prior to the 2020 pandemic, the Legislature had many semi-formal social events where people were compelled to be in the same room with each other. This includes things like Thursday night bowling leagues (where the teams are made up of staff and legislators from both political parties) and the many receptions hosted by various groups during their trips to the Capitol. Since COVID-19, the receptions, bowling league, and any opportunities outside of work to socialize no longer exist. Due to this lack of socialization and camaraderie, partisanship and a sense of distrust has enveloped Juneau.
As the national and state-level political worlds have become more polarized, good policy has been one of the many casualties. As staff, it has been demoralizing to watch hyper-partisan legislation, created in bad faith, consume much of the Legislature’s time while beneficial changes to state policy fall victim to political games. For example, hundreds of staff hours have been spent working on a bipartisan piece of legislation to update Alaska’s alcohol laws (which were last updated in the 70’s) only to die on the eve of the last day of session, meaning that another year goes by where it is illegal to play live music in a brewery. Instead of spending time working together to push out good legislation, staff exert most of their energy preventing harmful or special interest legislation from becoming law. Partisanship has also decreased the likelihood that a minority idea, regardless of merit, becomes incorporated into a piece of legislation.
The toxic political atmosphere in Juneau needs to change. I am taking a break from this line of work and will focus my energy on electing individuals I believe will change Juneau for the better. In 2022, the governor and 59 of the 60 legislative seats in the House and Senate will be up for election. When you are considering who you’ll vote for, choose legislators with a collaborative spirit. Choose people for whom it’s more important to have an effective and meaningful state government that creates good policy and avoid those who use divisive inflammatory political rhetoric to win votes. Ideologues tend to not make good policy, and that’s what Alaska needs right now.
It has been a great honor and privilege to work in the Alaska State Legislature in service to the constituents of Northeast Anchorage and the residents of this great state. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity and hope to one day be back.
Nate Graham moved to Anchorage in 2013 to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has worked as a legislative aide since 2017. He is leaving his job to run Democrat Les Gara’s gubernatorial campaign.