Life on 'the Hill'
Congressional internship takes Danville college student behind the scenes
Congressman Jerry McNerney has a bright blue Myspace page. Barack Obama has nearly 130,000 "friends" on Facebook.com. And a clip featuring a Hillary Clinton speech has been viewed over 3.6 million times on Youtube.com.
What do these democrats have in common? They are all pulling in votes from youths by treading onto their turf - popular Internet sites. Like rock stars and actors, politicians are all over social networking Web pages and media outlets frequented by American teens and 20-somethings.
And as political leaders reach out to young people, young people are reaching right back.
Tracy Petroski, an 18-year-old Sonoma State University student from Danville, saw this firsthand in Washington, D.C., while interning with U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D., 11th District). After arriving home this week from a two-month internship on Capitol Hill, she said the vast majority of people working on "the Hill" are under 30.
"Next election, I think there are going to be the most young voters ever," a slightly sleep-deprived Petroski said, after having caught the red-eye home from Washington.
"Politicians are getting (young people) in their own environment. They're hitting the nail on the head with Youtube," she said.
As an intern, she sat in on briefings for proposed bills, drafted memos, and gave tours of the congressional offices. Her duty at one point was to come up with well-researched questions for McNerney to ask the Environmental Protection Agency.
Learning how the political system works from the inside - proposing a bill, getting it passed, and funding it - inspired her to work toward positive change in the U.S. and overseas.
"I'm drawn to the impact politics can make. There are so many procedures I am not fond of, but in the end it does make an impact," she said.
With such a behind-the-scenes role in Washington, youths like Petroski could be paving the way for a trend in younger political leaders.
The youngest mayor in U.S. history was elected recently in Hillsdale, Mich., at just 18 years old. While John F. Kennedy is the youngest U.S. president to be elected, at 43, it's not uncommon to see politicians in their 20s run for lower level political positions - and win. Current San Francisco county Supervisor Chris Daly, for example, was the youngest supervisor in history to be elected in the city, at just 28.
On the Hill, there are several highly motivated interns from Danville and the Tri-Valley, thanks to McNerney. Petroski had frequent conversations with the congressman and heard a special speech that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave to the interns.
Petroski, who was by far the youngest intern, was enthused by some of the political groups and grassroots organizations. Activists would present facts to accompany a bill they hoped to have passed, along with solutions to solve their particular social issue.
One documentarian talked about the horrors endured by women in Middle Eastern countries, while displaying poignant photographs. And other advocates of renewable energy pushed for higher standards on automobile manufacturers, pointing to staggering statistics.
Even with the importance of the environmental work for which McNerney is well-known, Petroski felt herself pushing most for the education of women in the Middle East.
"That was the most profound for me. I got a better understanding of what life is like over there," she said.
Her father Peter Petroski, who hopes to see more of Danville's young people making waves in Washington, said he's already noticed how much she's learned from the internship.
"It was a great experience for her, coming from here (where) everything seems handed to you," he said.
Since she's been home, he added with a chuckle, "She keeps telling me my 'corporate footprint' is too big."
In Washington, Petroski lived three blocks away from congressional offices in a house full of other college students who were interning everywhere from the Pentagon to CNN. The living space was part of a program called WISH, Washington Intern Student Housing, which gets hundreds of interns together in a radius of a few blocks.
In her house, she was a minority, being that she was one of three democrats in a house full of republicans. When political debates would flare up, she was always the odd man out, she said.
But this gave her a chance to understand the opposite perspective - and strengthen her own convictions. Being a political black sheep in a house full of opinionated college kids actually strengthened her faith in the Democratic Party, she said.
"I learned other perspectives and it made me realize I am able to fend for myself," she said.
This summer's polls show a low national approval rate for Congress, at about 30 percent, which many attribute to votes on how to approach the predicament in Iraq. Petroski wants people to know, however, that much critical thinking goes into Congressional decision making.
"I don't think people realize we do take everybody's opinion into consideration. We really play to the constituents - so much thought goes into it," she said.
As youths take on subtle but significant roles in Washington, they are having a hand in those very thought processes. These days, even prominent politicians seem to be acknowledging that. From the Hill to the Web, young people are making a mark in politics.