The Foley path to public service through internships

“In a cynical age, I still believe that we must summon people to a vision of public service. For, in the end, this ethic determines more than anything else whether we will have citizens and leaders of honor, judgment, wisdom, and heart. These are the qualities this institute will nurture and advance, helping this nation become what it has always been destined to be, the best hope of a free people to live in an open and just society.”

—The Honorable Thomas S. Foley

Former LeLoup Intern, John Culton ’11 remembers the day he learned that an internship with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell in Washington, D.C., was a real possibility: “It was a grey December day, back in 2010, during a typical Pullman winter snowstorm with about three feet of snow on the ground. I was enjoying winter break at home, when the phone rang. It was Richard Elgar [assistant director of the Foley Institute] asking: ‘How would you like to go to D.C?’

“I had about a week to get ready, including securing an apartment in a city I knew nothing about,” Culton laughs.

Culton had applied for a D.C. internship but had never received a response. He mentioned this to Elgar in passing, and didn’t know Elgar was working hard behind the scenes to secure the position. It turns out that Culton’s paperwork had been misplaced.

“It was truly life-changing,” he continues. “When I arrived in D.C. to intern for Senator Cantwell, I immediately got to be a part of the legislative process. I was an economics minor, so I was given the opportunity to do research projects in tax, banking, and finance. I read Senate bills, went to Senate hearings, and gained a thorough understanding of what Congressional staff do on a daily basis.”

Culton, now Eastern Washington director for Sen. Patty Murray ’72, describes himself as a nontraditional student. He came to WSU to complete his undergraduate education in 2009 after supporting his wife, Joanne, through pharmacy school. He was 29. Although he selected political science and economics as his fields of study, he had no intention of working in government. “I was going to go to law school and be an attorney,” Culton says.

He took a civil liberties class with Foley Institute Director Cornell Clayton.

“I thought I was relatively politically astute,” says Culton. “My thinking was driven by a combination of family discussions during dinner, textbooks and the news, but I had absolutely no hands-on experience in politics or government. Through his class, Cornell helped shed light on the practical inner workings of the political process, taking the course beyond the theoretical and into real life application.”

Culton attended several Foley Institute events, and was impressed by the informal, personal nature of the gatherings. After that, he started to visit the institute on a regular basis. “One day, I told Cornell about my plans to attend law school, but he seemed to think that some time in the nation’s capital might be beneficial before I committed, so he encouraged me to go intern in D.C. Without the Foley Institute and its staff, I would’ve had no idea this sort of opportunity even existed.

Stephanie Logan ’15, another Foley LeLoup Intern, remembers a pivotal day in her college career. Logan, a political science major, was a standout player on WSU’s women’s volleyball team. In the fall of her junior year, she began to think about becoming more active in politics, but her schedule was grueling.

Logan recalls: “Volleyball season was over. There was snow on the ground. It was around three in the afternoon on the Friday of final’s week and the campus was almost deserted. I had just taken my last final on the fourth floor of Bryan Hall, and was on my way home to sleep for a week. It was dark in the hallway, and I could see that the lights were still on at the Foley offices. I decided to drop by.”

Logan began working at the Foley Institute the following semester. She credits Elgar and Clayton with helping her chart a compelling professional path. “These people became my career counselors and mentors,” she says. “If you just listen to the news you only know about partisan politics. They helped me understand that there is a world of options out there to do interesting work. They took the time to find out what interested me and helped me make incredible connections.”

In 2014, Logan was a LeLoup intern at Congressional Research Services (CRS) in D.C. She is now pursuing master’s in public administration at American University and working at the Office of the Inspector General.

Stephanie Logan and a fellow student at Constitution Day in 2014. At the Foley-sponsored event, students hand out pocket Constitutions and other Foley gear on campus. Courtesy Stephanie Logan
Stephanie Logan and a fellow student at Constitution Day in 2014. At the Foley-sponsored event, students hand out pocket Constitutions and other Foley gear on campus. Courtesy Stephanie Logan

Austin Hicks ’12 believes that his experiences with the Foley Institute were the most important components of his undergraduate experience. “I remember going to a few events and getting hooked,” he says. “In 2011, news about the Arab Spring was everywhere. I attended a Coffee and Politics session with an Al Jazeera correspondent [Ayman Mohyeldin]. That event had a big impact on me. But the conversation that sticks with me to this day was with Representative Baird.”

A former U.S. Representative from Washington’s Third District, Brian Baird spoke at the Bundy Reading Room in the spring of 2012. “He gave a good talk about the challenges of implementing smart public health policy. But it was what he said afterward that stuck with me,” says Hicks.

Hicks was a communications intern at the Foley Institute at that time, and had completed an internship with Colby Underwood Consulting, LLC as a fundraiser. “I had already experienced the work world, and was thinking about life after college,” he says.

“I asked Representative Baird if he had any advice for me,” Hicks continues. “He told me to never compromise my beliefs or work for anyone I didn’t believe in. In the end you have to work for what’s right. That has to guide you along your path. In every professional experience since then I’ve made sure our values align. His advice still resonates.”

After graduation from WSU, Hicks worked on Suzan DelBene’s congressional campaign as a field organizer. He also had a stint at public affairs firm Strategies 360, before moving to Washington, D.C. in 2013. He’s now on Maria Cantwell’s press team. Hicks enjoys working on the federal level for the people of Washington state, and believes he’ll be involved as a citizen advocate for the rest of his life.

John Culton, Stephanie Logan, and Austin Hicks agree that the internships facilitated by the Foley Institute were immensely rewarding, and they all urge others to take advantage of them. When asked why more young people didn’t enter political fields, their answers were strikingly similar; they all said, in various ways, that there is a strong public perception that political professions are universally self-serving, contentious, and ultimately, unproductive.

“There is such a disconnect between what the American public believes and how politics really works,” says Culton. “That is so unfortunate, so untrue.” As head of Sen. Patty Murray’s Spokane office, he and his staff are in close contact with staff from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office. “We share a floor in the same building with the Fifth District. Our different party affiliation almost never comes up. It’s very professional, very cordial. It’s all about serving our constituents and about regional priorities: Spokane’s north/south freeway, Fairchild Air Force Base, public health and safety. We don’t sit around and trash talk. We get things done.”

Culton hires two or three interns every semester and recommends that all political science students intern in government. He says: “a lot of people get degrees. Few people make the effort to spend time learning politics from the inside. A lot of staffers on the Hill are former interns. This is how you get started. This is how you open that door.”

Culton concludes: “I love my job. It’s not work to me, because my office truly tries to help people. That’s what public service is all about. I owe my career to the Foley Institute. They sparked a fire within me I didn’t know existed.”