NCSL Podcasts

A Long View on Staff | LTIS Episode 19

Episode Summary

Host Tim Storey’s guest for this episode is Leonor Ehling, the executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University. She is also co-director of the Legislative Staff Management Institute (LSMI), which is a flagship program that NCSL produces jointly with Sacramento State and the University of Southern California. They discussed LSMI and the hundreds of legislative staffers who have had the opportunity to enhance their management and leadership skills. Ehling also discussed her role as director of the Capital Fellows Program, which places 64 fellows each year in all three branches of California government. She reflected on how two decades as a legislative staffer helped her understand the value of recruiting a diverse group of fellows, many of whom still work in the legislature today.

Episode Notes

Host Tim Storey’s guest for this episode is Leonor Ehling, the executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University. She is also co-director of the Legislative Staff Management Institute (LSMI), which is a flagship program that NCSL produces jointly with Sacramento State and the University of Southern California.

They discussed LSMI and the hundreds of legislative staffers who have had the opportunity to enhance their management and leadership skills. Ehling also discussed her role as director of the Capital Fellows Program, which places 64 fellows each year in all three branches of California government. She reflected on how two decades as a legislative staffer helped her understand the value of recruiting a diverse group of fellows, many of whom still work in the legislature today.


Episode Transcription

TS:      This is “Legislatures:  The Inside Storey.”  Thank you for listening. I am the host Tim Storey, the CEO of NCSL, The National Conference of State Legislatures. My guest is Leonor Ehling, the executive director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University. Leonor’s responsibilities include overseeing the Capital Fellows Program that places dozens of fellows in positions in all three branches of California state government. She also serves as the co-director of the Legislative Staff Management Institute, LSMI, which is a flagship program that NCSL does jointly with Sacramento State and the University of Southern California. It has developed hundreds of legislative staffers and given them the opportunity to enhance their management and leadership skills at a high-level executive education program. Ehling shares the director role with Paul Danczyk of the University of Southern California, who was my guest on the last episode. 


Ehling talked about how her two decades as a legislative staff person helped her understand the value of recruiting a diverse group of fellows, many of whom still work in the legislature today. In recruiting people for the program, she stresses how exciting the legislature can be and the value of improving the lives of your fellow citizens. She also talks about how LSMI, which she was a graduate of, presents a wonderful opportunity for legislative staffers to take the big step to becoming a leader in their legislature. 


            Leonor Ehling coming from California onto the podcast. Thank you so much for making time to join me today and have a conversation about your time in and around legislatures and some of the work you’ve done at LSMI. 


LE:      Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m excited to be here. 


TS:      Thank you again. I really do appreciate it and we will be talking about LSMI. This is the second podcast consecutively that this has been a topic of conversation on my friendly little podcast that I have. And we will get into that a bit and more but let me just start with you know let’s go into a little bit more detail about how you have come to this day in your professional career. You worked in the California Legislature in the Assembly. You know how did that come to pass, and you know what is your background that leads you to this day as the Leader of the California Fellows Program and other things?



LE:      You know sometimes I think it was just luck and accident. But thinking back, I always did have an interest in government and politics. First job in the legislature, in the Assembly, I was 30, 29 or 30 and I had had some jobs before then, but they were all sort of related to government. My first job in the legislature was for the Legislative Analyst Office in 1995 and I loved the work. I loved budget stuff. I had a budget background. I had studied public finance in my graduate program, and I just loved I love numbers. I loved the back and forth with budget stuff. About a year and a half into that job, the leadership in the Assembly flipped from Republican back to Democrats so this is sort of a time of upheaval. Political upheaval in California. Willie Brown had been the speaker for many years, and he was termed out and this is also the time when term limits passed. And so, there were a lot of openings, and I threw my hat into the ring, and I got a job with the Assembly Education Committee analyzing bills. I didn’t know I was going to stay for 20 years, but I did, and I worked in the Assembly. That was my first job. I later got to work for the Assembly Budget Committee, back to budgets, which I studied economics and I love numbers and have always loved numbers, but I definitely love the policy statement that a budget makes. 


            The biggest demonstration of an entity’s value is their budget. That’s really where a lot of things get done so I love that. And then I went to work for the Senate for 10 years. Mostly in the Senate Office of Research, which is sort of a nonpartisan group that is unique to the Senate, and we did a lot of work on appointments and oversights. So, the Senate confirms gubernatorial appointees, and we would do a lot of background research related to executive branch agencies in the extent to which they were implementing or not implementing or how they are implementing legislation. So that was fun. And then I got to work for the Rules Committee. And then this position came up and I thought oh this is great. You know, I’ve worked in the legislature for 20 years. I would like to work in the executive branch or try something new. But I still get to work with my friends you know and my former colleagues and near close to a place that I loved and spent most of my career. And helping recruit people so the fellows’ program that we run helps recruit not just young people, but people who don’t have experience in the public sector or the legislative sector, executive branch or judicial branch, but are interested in it, and people like me. I was not a Fellow. I got to work in a building in more of a roundabout way, but I was always interested in government and policy.


TS:      It’s a good thing to jump off on here is the fellows’ program itself because I don’t know that a lot of states have certainly something as elaborate and as well developed as the California Fellows Program so tell us about that.


            (TM):  05:26


LE:      It started as an Assembly program, and it was run by the Assembly and then the Senate created its own program. It dates back to the ’50s. It was a paid internship. Well actually I think at the beginning it was you know a very minimal symbolic stipend that people received. And then there was an initiative in the ’80s that cut the legislature’s budget and so the legislature decided they wanted to keep these programs, but they couldn’t keep them on their budget, so they gave them to Sac State. And President Don Gerth, who is the founder of the Center for California Studies and is really the reason why the fellows program is here at a Sac State and not at UC, it’s because of him. And here they stayed, and we’ve really had to make sure that we are doing right by the legislature and meeting their goals in terms of recruiting people that will stay, but also who represents the states. That’s the big charge that they give us is find us some folks who are interested in serving but who also will be able to relate to our constituents who represent the state who have a point of view that’s important to have as you know we deliberate and make decisions on people that affect people’s lives. You know we really try to make sure that we are recruiting first generation college graduates. People from you know transfer students. People from all races, ethnicities. All parts of the state. Rural California. Democrats. Republicans. Immigrants. We really look far and wide for people who have interesting experiences and who have a passion for serving. And a lot of those folks end up staying and working in legislature.


TS:      How big is the Fellows Program?


LE:      Sixty-four people.


TS:      And that’s an annual. Is it on kind of a calendar where like they all come in at the same time?


LE:      We have an application process. You have to have two letters of recommendation. You have to write some essays. You have to have a bachelor’s degree. We have a very minimal GPA. We don’t care what major you have. Really, it’s about what can you say about your passion for public service. Say and also demonstrate. So, it’s fine if you worked at Starbucks, but maybe you have some story in your upbringing that explains why you are interested in working in changing the laws. I’ve met people. I just recruited a young woman today who said oh I’m really interested in working on healthcare. And I said why. And she said oh my family was on Medi-Cal for a long time which is the California equivalent of you know Medicaid. You know we had some problems because they required you to sign up again every year and there were it was very complicated. We couldn’t get an answer and I would like to work you know as somebody who used to have to navigate the system on this. So, and that’s the kind of person we are looking for. Someone who has a passion for making things better. 


TS:      And the fellows are now assigned to all three branches of government.


LE:      Yes. And that’s something that is an innovation after the programs came to Sac State and that is something that the late Tim Hodson, who was my predecessor.


TS:      You know I knew Tim well. He was a terrific guy. It was a huge loss, huge loss. 


LE:      He was a legend, yes. And he was I mean he really, he was his energy and passion for legislative work, but also all sorts of you know public service was just. It was contagious. 


TS:      He was, I think, key to the Legislative Staff Management Institute and that evolution and the things involved in some of that as well which we will get to again in a second, but so what do the fellows do in the legislature just to leaders offices or how do you decide which where they get assigned.


LE:      They work. This is a paid post baccalaureate fellowship. You get paid as a Sac State employee. You get a salary a little over $3,000 a month and benefits. You are also enrolled as a graduate student, so you also get to defer your student loans because you are a student. You work full-time as an employee of the legislature. You work as a legislative aide, and you get thrown in. We get a lot of support. A lot of the funding that we get from the legislature is for staff to support the Fellows and we have a director of each program--Jaime Taylor is the director of Senate Fellows Program at LMSI. He worked at the Senate desk for years and years and he knows backwards and forwards about the Senate rules. He can tell you, you know, deadlines, what is the file notice deadline. Everything, right. And he trains people on the rules so that they know how to get a bill through and what you are supposed to do and what you don’t. He also brings in speakers that tell people the dos and don’ts of staffing a bill. Both programs have the brown bag every week with a member. In the Assembly they actually feed them. They give them food, which is really important when you are young and working 12 hours a day and you have no time to get lunch. 


TS:      And I do think other you know people listening here from other states. You know most states have some intern programs you know and some of them are more evolved or less evolved. You guys get I assume you get a director appropriation of some kind and.


LE:      Yes, we do. Yes. 


TS:      You know are they all individual member aides or do some of them go to the Clerk’s Office or the Research Office?  Do they kind of get distributed to other places?


LE:      Most of them go to member offices. I believe from time to time we will place fellows in committees. That sort of depends on the leadership, but for the most part the vast majority go to work as legislative aides.


            (TM):  11:07


TS:      What I loved that you said you recruit them right. You are trying to I assume you get a lot of applications because you are advertising somehow for people who are graduating or recently graduated. You mentioned when we had a little pre-conversation before that you try to pitch them on the legislature. So how does that pitch go?


LE:      I think it’s sort of a typical applicant is someone who is a political science major and maybe a student body president or you know is interested in politics from the campaign side. I remember hearing about the fellows program when I was right about to graduate my bachelor’s program. And I was so intimidated by the program that I didn’t apply. Because I thought, oh I’m an introvert you know. I can’t get up and talk in front of people. I thought it was for people who ran for student government and that was way out of my league. I thought I’m a behind the scenes person. I didn’t see myself in that role. I didn’t realize there are many types of people who work staffers and that really as a staffer much of your job is to be behind the scenes. But that doesn’t mean you are not getting a lot done. You know it’s just such it’s such a unique job. It’s hard to explain to your friends and family and that is what I loved about LMSI. I went through the program as a legislative staffer when I worked in the Senate. I loved it. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to explain my job to people you know or explain you know you try to your parents, your relatives are like why did you stay at work all night like didn’t you get your work done. No, we were all there.


TS:      We should devote, I should devote a series of podcasts just on how do we tell our friends and family what we do when we work in the legislature eco system. If you’ve never been to a desert like, how do you really know what a desert is like, you know. You know, they believe there is something called a desert. Not that legislatures are deserts. It is quite the opposite. Lush places to work, but yeah, we should all compare notes on what do you say when you are on a in some random place, and somebody says what do you do.


LE:      But I think for your loved ones especially you know when you are missing birthdays during parts of the year right and you know like what, what. Why, why. You know well it’s deadline week or what have you. It’s the legislative deadline or its fight or die or whatever but it was really something I really enjoyed at LMSI was just meeting people from other states who understood the environment, but also understood the why. The why is well first of all, it’s exciting. It’s exciting to be in a place where there are really important decisions being made and you get to be a part of it and get to try to help provide information to the people who are making the decisions. The real why for me is trying to make things better for my friends and family and my neighbors and my fellow Californians. And I think there’s a lot of people who feel that way but may not see themselves as working for an elected official or you know, or they think they are not glamorous enough. Or you know I don’t look like someone from the West Wing, or you know or whatever. I don’t fit the profile of somebody in “Veep” or you know. I mean there’s also there is good and bad portrayals of elected officials right, but here I am someone who didn’t think of myself as having the personality that would be a good fit for a legislative staff and I sort of stumbled my way into this place that I loved, and I stayed for 20 years. And those are the people that I want to recruit is people that may not see themselves as you know running for office, but love to help other people and are curious enough about how government works that they want to spend their life there.


TS:      Yeah, I think that’s a real key is love to help other people, right. And you really have to have a service mentality to be good at legislative staffing at some level because it really is its support teamwork. And that’s true for legislatures as well you know. Not everybody is going to be the Speaker forever and or the Senate President forever and it’s really far more about you know teamwork and people who their goal is help everybody else cross lines. This notion is exciting too. I think that is something that really captures people to legislatures. I’ve been in most of the legislatures at some point. Sometimes during the interim would by the way they are the opposite of exciting. They are you could see tumbleweeds coming down the hallways in some states you know when the interim is very quiet. So, it’s such a contrast right to the busy days of session especially in those crazy days when various interests just randomly collide you know. Maybe the trucking interest has got their trucks everywhere and it’s loud and crazy cause there is some bill that has to do with trucking. I don’t know why I picked that out of thin air and then you know maybe it’s realtor day in the Capitals so there’s realtors from everywhere. I’m drawn to just this somewhat randomness of it, but it’s all these different groups colliding in and like why are you guys here. Well, we are here for you know because we are in support of guns or against guns or whatever and at the same day, it’s state realtor day or it’s county auditor’s day and those people are going around, and you are like oh wow. It’s such a collision of all these different groups and interests. That makes it very exciting. 


            (TM):  17:11


LE:      It’s democracy right. And you always have the kids the school group you know going through when there is something. A very loud protest and people get arrested you know and it’s sort of like welcome to the state capital kids. 


TS:      Yeah. You are so right. Yeah, and then there’s you know there’s Mr. B’s fifth grade class is coming through and they are just sort of part of this whole circus. But not circus in a bad way, but you know these fascinating like look at that ring and maybe this ring and for whatever reason on the same day, there will be some huge bill up in the health committee and then there’s also a huge bill up in the commerce committee and I don’t know. I think that’s really about the places.


LE:      Oh yeah. The hearings. I mean even though I mean the staffers we know that you know most of the time if you are presenting a bill, you know how the vote is going to go. Maybe not though in other states. But it’s just always you know interesting to watch. You never know what’s going to happen the tough bills I mean. The headbanger bills right as we used to say that are like usually addressing some really difficult problem and it’s hard to move the needle for political reasons and just practicality and homeless let’s say. And I just love watching that stuff. I’m a policy wonk, right. I just think, how do we solve this. 


TS:      Well, let’s talk about LSMI for a minute. You are the co-director of LSMI with Paul Danczyk who was the last podcast and tell us what LSMI means, like the letters mean.


LE:      Legislative Staff Management Institute. This is a leadership program for legislative staff. It’s the as far as I know, I know NCSL runs many programs and this is a leadership, this is a weeklong intensive program for you. And you get to meet people from other states that do the same thing you do, and you get to commiserate with them. You get to sort of learn how their job is different, how their state is different. There are so many flavors, right, of legislatures. It is fascinating. Some of the voter initiatives that other states have to grabble with are fascinating you know. You think that you have it bad and then you hear about like some state where they are not allowed to appropriate money in this particular way or something you know that sounds crazy. But you know, people find a way and that is something that is I think true about legislative staff is they find a way to get the job done. And they are very dedicated, and they will do whatever it takes. 


            I remember one time I was a staffer for, and this is an example that I always give. I was a staffer for the Assembly Budget Committee. I won’t say which year, but my boss who was the chief consultant gave me a picture of it was sort of like a picture of a fund with arrows going in and out and other funds and gave me this picture and said can you draft some language along these lines. And I did it man. I did it. You know. And of course, then he was like that’s not what I meant, and I said well you gave me a picture you know. What do you expect, but of course none of us had had any sleep or anything and then of course that led to all sorts of inside jokes about let’s do an interpretive dance to. But in the end, he explained what he meant. I’m not sure I want people to think that we all write legislation from pictures, but you know this was a draft that they were going to put in right. That’s not what ended up happening, but it was for a proposal, someone’s proposals.


            (TM):  20:54


TS:      This for me is a bit of a quandary rather. I just take a quick tangent that I feel like if we designed a system. Like you know if we had engineers design a system and not you know the framers of the Constitution who sort of, we can trace our models back then and even before then obviously with colonial legislatures. An engineer would not design this system to make policy right. And the reason I say that is that you know the way the deadlines come and the human element. People are, they are tired. You know a lot of times when sessions end, you haven’t really eaten very well for months you know. And California of course is more of a fulltime legislature, but you know at the end when the button is due. People are stretched too thin. They are really stressed. We make them travel long distances which brings its own stress. Probably not exercising great cause it’s end of session, and everything gets pushed out of the way in terms of taking care of yourself. And then we are like okay now make these really, really important decisions. Is that how you would design this from a neuroscience, from a brain science perspective?  I’m not sure we would do that, but this is the system we have. And it’s got all kinds of checks and system components to make sure that we could correct problems and that. But yeah, I’m struck by your story.


LE:      Yeah, I’m sure every country it works the same way. I mean when you have all these high stakes involved with these big decisions, it’s not going to be easy or methodical or you know it’s going to be unpredictable and hard to manage and you have to have a deadline, or they wouldn’t get gone.


TS:      And these are also people institutions. These are at the end of the day people who almost all are trying to do their best, but have you know we all have quirky personality things going on. And then you throw everybody together and say okay we need you to be friends with these people and make huge decisions.


LE:      And the life of a legislator is hard. I didn’t really appreciate that until I started working for them and thinking about how you know they are living in two different places, and they have to leave their families and they may be caregivers and they have to you know outsource that for a little while or bring their kids up. And they are just never off. That’s hard.


TS:      And people are saying really awful hateful things about you maybe. Would you tell your best friend if they said I’m thinking about running for the legislature. Would you say go for it or would you say be really careful and think about the commitment and the sacrifice?


LE:      I don’t know. I mean today things are a little bit different. People can find your address. And things are a lot more heated. I think I would have some ambivalence, but I think I might tell them to try to get a job as a legislative staffer instead. I mean I think that democracy needs leaders just like the legislature needs legislative staff and new people coming in and the more representative we are, the stronger we are as a democracy right so. Particularly people who may not see themselves as elected officials. I think that’s important. 


TS:      I mean in all fairness I guess it dawns on me I should answer this question as well and it has crossed my mind that the life of a legislator is definitely there are really aspects to it especially end of session when you’ve really accomplished something. And it is a sacrifice. It’s a marathon. By the way, having run marathons in my much younger and skinnier days, I know that at the end, it is incredible, but you are also in a lot of pain right. You hurt for a couple of days. I guess that metaphor plays through because you know you finish session, and you are tired. It hurts. You’ve left it on the field or on the racecourse, but you’ve done something incredible you know if you’ve really taken the job seriously. But there is a toll. There is a price to pay especially for families. I guess if I was giving advice to somebody running for legislature, I’d say do it with your eyes wide open. Talk about the sacrifices because there is definitely sacrifice to it offset by some incredible rewards. And then the other part that you brought up Leonor is that we truly need good people, and it would worry me if the smartest people or the you know the most thoughtful people really could bring different voices to it. All said, it’s not worth the price. Speaking of worth the price you know in most places the salary does not really even in places that pay more, California and New York, it’s still a lot of people have to take you know substantial pay cuts from their personal income to make it work. And then there is the time is just incredible. 


            (TM):  25:42


LE:      Appealing to people’s interests in doing good for other people is I mean almost every member I’ve worked for has had that motivation. It’s a big risk too because you may lose your election and you get elected and you may lose a big fight, a huge fight, on a bill a thing that you are very passionate about.


TS:      If you can’t get over losing frankly, if you can’t adjust to like yeah you are not winning every time, it may not be the right business for you because I think you know a big part of being a successful legislator is take your losses, take you wins and then come back again another time. Come back the next year and run or whatever or decide it’s time for somebody new to come into this game. But you said it, it’s so true that almost every legislator I’ve ever met which has got to be thousands at this point, they really do seem to have that in common. Like you got to sort of help people, or you know bring your vision to the state. Very few of them are like wow I want the perks.


LE:      I want the Southwest flights back and forth every week.


TS:      I want that title. I want people to call me Senator, an assembly member. But yeah, that wears off after about 12 hours and then you are like oh great. Back to LSMI, what do you love about the program?You’ve done it how many times roughly?


LE:      I have been involved in running the program this will be my 6th, 5th year and I’ve been a participant as a legislative staffer and that’s when I got to meet Tim just really, I mean he’s again. This is how dedicated he was to legislatures is on the bus ride from Sacramento to San Francisco because back then in the early or 2009 when I went through, you also had a trip to San Francisco. So, we got on the bus, and he showed us a video of a television program I think from the ’50s or ’60s about a state legislature, a fictional state legislature. It was like some kind of drama. It was like “Perry Mason” or something. It was like this gem, and he wanted to share it with all of us. So, his enthusiasm for this work was just infectious. It’s an intense eight-day program. You will be in a room with other staff, and you will be hearing from people who inspire other people on particular aspects of leadership, how to deal with difficult people, how to negotiate, how to take care of yourself. You get like a strength finder, like assessment of your own strengths and your skills, and that is something that was very eye opening to me. Legislatures are really good at doing things for their staff that are urgent. The kind of non-urgent but important things like training and things like that sometimes because of deadlines and just how legislatures are set up, those don’t always go to the top of the pile. So, this is an opportunity for your institution to invest in you as a legislative staffer and give you some tools that you need to take your career to the next step and become a leader even if you are not a manager. A lot of places are flat organizations can show leadership from the middle. Do lots of things, right. You can be a recruiter to bring more people into the profession. You can change to another profession. Some people come through our program, and they say you know I think I want to do you know IT or something instead of being a lawyer. But most of the time it allows people to take their next step and maybe put their name in a hat for a leadership role or just say in what they are doing and just take it to the next level and be the elder in their organization.


TS:      And when we have a lot of experience, we know that people have done that who’ve come through this particular staff management program very customed for the legislature. You know NCSL, I think you are right. This is often like very important but not urgent so as we know you know that little grid of important and urgent, so it sometimes doesn’t get the attention it needs. And NCSL had we’ve you know dramatically increased our professional development services for legislatures because they just keep demanding. I kind of feel like hopefully there is more attention and more awareness that it’s really vital to invest. We also know it pays off. We see people go through this program who sometimes it’s career changing, it’s life changing. You know it’s just so it’s such a gift to take a week which isn’t very long in the grand scheme of things and reflect on you know your role and your career and how you can do better. I also went through the LSMI program when it was at the University of Minnesota and it was actually two weeks then as you probably have heard and we stayed in the dorm rooms at the university, which were astonishingly small in my recollection. I didn’t know dorm rooms were that small at least you know cause my memory of you know college you don’t remember how small your room is. You just thought oh I have my own room, I don’t know. So that was a great time and I know to this day, I lean on some of the things I learned. 


            Well, we are so excited to continue to partner with Sacramento State and of course USC and Paul Danczyk, who we heard from last time on the podcast. I just want you to know that from the NCSL perspective, it’s just a terrific partnership and we hear over and over and over again the reviews. The experiences are just so positive, and I know you make a huge contribution to that as the co-director.


LE:      Well, thank you. Thank you. I mean we couldn’t have a better partner. NCSL is there to remind legislative staff every day that they matter, and they are worth investing in. And you know it’s an excellent opportunity I think for NCSL offers so many opportunities for legislative staff to take leadership roles within NCSL and continue their development in terms of learning about other states and getting support. NCSL when I was a staffer even before LSMI, I relied on them for many things. It’s really a pleasure to partner with you.


TS:      Well, that is sure nice to hear and right back at you Leonor. So, a great place to say a huge debt of gratitude for all that you are doing in California and for LSMI and for the time you took to come and have this conversation.


LE:      Thank you. It’s been fun. It’s been fun. 


TS:      I’ve been talking with Leonor Ehling, Executive Director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University and the co-director of the Legislative Staff Management Institute. Thank you for joining me and Leonor on this episode of “Legislatures:  The Inside Storey” brought to you by the National Conference of State Legislatures.


            (TM):  32:46


Ed:      You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. Tim Storey, NCSL’s CEO hosts “Legislatures:  The Inside Storey” where he focuses on leadership and legislatures. The “Our American States” podcast dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures.