He didn’t appear nervous, but his opening line suggested otherwise. 

“Senate Finance Committee, my name is Radames Mercado,” the 20-year-old University of Alaska Anchorage student said to the Senate State Affairs Committee, a much smaller and less influential panel than Senate Finance. 

The committee let it slide without saying a word and Mercado quickly relaxed and continued his presentation. 

He’s among a dozen University of Alaska students cutting their teeth on public policy — but on the front lines rather than the classroom. It’s part of the Senator Ted Stevens Legislative Internship Program that places university students in lawmakers offices for much, if not all of the session.

Mercado, a political science and journalism major, worked in Sen. John Coghill’s office where he helped the North Pole Republican with two pieces of legislation, while drafting his own bill.

“Part of my agreement was I have a philosophy is when you come to my office you’re going to be just like a regular staffer,” said Coghill, who has had 10 interns placed in his office. “You’re going to carry your weight. I’m not going to have you answering phones unless you need to. You will be dealing with policy issues. You will be researching in our constitution, in our statutes and across the states.” 

Last month, Mercado introduced Senate Bill 73 to the five-member State Affairs Committee. He wants to consider a different line of succession for the governor and lieutenant governor. 

Right now, Education Commissioner Michael Johnson will succeed Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer should he step down or replace Gov. Mike Dunleavy should he step down before his term expires.

Mercado hopes the Legislature will create a longer line of succession through his bill and he delivered his first pitch last month.

“You’re discussing the projects that you’re working on with them; that’s an opportunity like none other,” he said. “To create legislation and discuss it with five different people and see what this can do for the Alaskan people."

The overall program gets administered through the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Most of the participating students are juniors, though Mercado is a sophomore.

UAS Chancellor Rick Caufield said he watched his son, Michael, complete an internship with Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, before going to law school and beginning to practice in Anchorage.

“It gives them a front-row seat to the legislative process, a deep understanding of public policy challenges that face our state and an understanding of how legislators have to engage in the give and take of negotiations of crafting meaningful public policy and budgets for the state of Alaska,” he said.
“It also gives them experience working in a high-pressure office environment, presenting their oral and written communication skills, critical thinking as they develop background material for their legislator about the issues at hand.”

Marc Robertson, a senior political science and criminal justice major, became a full-time aide for House Rep. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, after interning for Wielechowski. Going from a liberal lawmaker to one who is more conservative within a single session was not lost on Robertson.

“I’m politically pretty left of center,” he said. “I would say that I’m a moderate just in the sense that I don’t agree with either side completely, but I definitely align with liberal social issues more. I’m not necessarily a partisan guy. [...] It’s really cool to spend some time in the liberal side of the Senate and then go to the Republican side of the House. It really fleshed out what the internship program had to offer.”

Many students later return to the capitol after graduating and find themselves with greater responsibilities as committee aides or chief of staff. Some even end up working for the sitting governor.

Jordan Shilling, a former intern and staffer for Coghill, now works in Dunleavy’s communications office. Grace Abbott is chief of staff for House Rules Committee Chair Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage.

Elizabeth Bolling, worked as an intern for former House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, while attending UAS and has since worked for Rep. Dan Oritz, I-Ketchikan, and former Gov. Bill Walker. She now works for House majority whip Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.

“There’s quite a number of people here who learned about these positions, they got access to these positions because their parents know someone, they’re related to someone, they have this connection to bring them in,” Bolling said. “So the internship is a program that brings in people whose families are not connected to politics. I wouldn’t have known these jobs even existed if it were not for that internship program.”

Most students have completed their internship after 90 days, though some stay for the remaining 31 days.

Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.