Opinion: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to right the wrongs of her internship program
When it comes to her internship program, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is par for the course on the patronage, exploitation and corruption of Washington, D.C.
Oct 21, 2021
As the competitive application season rolls around for those aspiring to be a congressional intern this spring, college students are putting the final touches on their resumes and hoping for the best. The famous picture of former President Donald Trump’s nearly all-white intern class sheds light on the enormous inequality that exists in these application processes. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), another rich New Yorker, is no exception to the norm. In two instances where Gillibrand is pictured with separate intern classes, it’s impossible not to notice the senator’s selection of a nearly all-white internship class.
The homogeneity of her interning staff, however, is only the most visible of many structural injustices within her program.
Before it became popular among self-described progressives to pay interns a wage, Gillibrand did not pay her interns a nickel. Now she’s offering applicants a $3000 stipend for roughly 16 40-hour work weeks. But don’t spend it all in one place, because that translates to $4.60 an hour — far below the District of Columbia’s tipped minimum wage. Although this is immoral on its face, it gets worse from there. It appears that Gillibrand might have exploited a Senate rule by staffing unpaid interns in her office whose parents are on her big-donor list.
There is no more fitting example of this than Emma Vigeland, a pseudo-leftist co-host of “The Majority Report” podcast with Sam Seder. She started her career in political work with a coveted internship on Capitol Hill. At just 16 years old, before even earning her high school diploma, she became an intern for Gillibrand.
“I worked really hard, then they gave me a job, and I loved working there,” Vigeland said last month regarding her time in Gillibrand’s office. It appears that “hard work” might not be the only reason she was able to intern at such a young age. Since 2011, Vigeland’s mother has personally donated more than $10,000 to Gillibrand’s campaigns. Her mother also appears to have been involved in some of Gillibrand’s high-dollar fundraisers. Though Gillibrand and Vigeland have tried over the years to brand themselves as progressives, it appears that both of them are engaged in the exact kind of patronage that runs so rampant within D.C.
By no means is Gillibrand the only Democrat engaged in this kind of corruption. When reflecting on her time as a Capitol Hill intern with the late congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) stated that most of the interns that she worked with were the children of donors.
These internships can be stepping stones to other internships, careers in government or — as in the case of Pressley — becoming a member of Congress. For the sake of Congress, its members and voters in the coming generations, it’s essential that Capitol Hill interns be recruited from beyond the same narrow pool of elites.
How many qualified working-class students — whose parents didn’t donate $10,000 or more to Gillibrand’s campaigns — applied for her internship but were turned away? How many qualified New Yorkers of color were rejected, just to save a slot for some 16-year-old white girl whose principal qualification was being the daughter of two powerful Democratic donors? How can a working class intern live on $4.60 an hour — in one of the most expensive cities in the country — for eight hour days in some back room of the Russell Senate Office Building?
Members of the U.S. Senate set the rules and wages for their own staff. Gillibrand could pay her interns a fair wage this afternoon. She could shut off the donor-to-staff pipeline that has flooded her office and hire more interns of color so that her program is more reflective of the city and state she’s supposed to serve. For working class applicants to have a fair shot, Gillibrand needs to right these wrongs.
Contact Zach Banks at [email protected]