Big-City Mayors Tap Grad Students for Their Teams

New mayoral fellowships give graduate students city governance experience and mayors much-needed extra help.
by | January 22, 2015
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, with several Bohnett Fellows the David Bohnett Foundation

The idea came to them at a small dinner among friends. Torie Osborn, a deputy mayor of Los Angeles at the time, bemoaned the growth in homelessness in her city and the lack of staffing to deal with it.

"City governments are so starved in human resources. I don’t have a smart person to do the research I need," she said.

"Well, my students would love a chance help on a real-world project," said Barbara Nelson then-dean of the public affairs school at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

At this point, Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and a visiting professor at UCLA, looked up from his food. "You’ve got the need and you’ve got the human resources -- I’m sure you can figure this out.”

And they did.

The dinner took place about seven years ago at philanthropist David Bohnett’s house, who offered to help his guests pay for UCLA graduate students to intern with the L.A. mayor’s office. Today, the program also partners with the University of Michigan and New York University to cover the tuition and stipends of temporary employees for mayors in Detroit and New York City. Between the three cities, the foundation has spent about $2.5 million on 52 Bohnett fellows, who have worked on a range of issues, from reducing homelessness to expanding public transit.

This week, several students from the fellowship are in Washington, D.C., for the annual winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, allowing the would-be civil servants a chance to talk with political leaders from the nation’s largest cities.

It’s but one of the many perks the students enjoy during their time as mayoral interns.

“At the very beginning, we were worried that there wouldn't be a desk for them or that they would just be getting coffee,” said Michael Fleming, executive director of the David Bohnett Foundation. “It never happened. It never came close to happening.”

When Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti came into office, in the summer of 2013, he required all department heads to re-apply for their positions -- something a mayor of Los Angeles had never done before. Initially, Fleming said he and his counterparts at UCLA fretted about the students being lost in a chaotic transition period without mentors or meaningful work. Instead, Garcetti made his Bohnett fellows part of the team that vetted the department heads. They helped design the process for evaluating department heads and briefed the mayor on applicants.

"They were thrust right into an extremely important, high-profile situation," said Rick Cole, deputy mayor for budget and innovation in Los Angeles. "That trial by fire meant that they were seasoned full-fledged members of the team of a brand new administration."

Last summer's fellows included Judy Herbstman, who worked for Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development in New York City. Before becoming a student at NYU's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Herbstman had worked at several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

She decided to try local government after Bill de Blasio won the New York City’s mayor’s race with an inspiring campaign focused on reducing income inequality. "It was a really exciting time here," she said.

During her fellowship, she helped with speech writing for the deputy mayor and developed a set of recommendations on how to streamline the housing development process. “It’s nice to be treated like one of the staff," Herbstman said, "even though I knew I wasn’t going to be there for long."

The Bohnett fellowship program is part of a larger effort by mayors offices across the country to enhance their workforce by taking interns from local universities. A quick Internet search turns up mayoral fellowships in Baltimore, Providence, R.I., Chicago and Columbia, S.C. It's a good deal for the city because the students typically have a few years of work experience and some policy analysis skills. In the case of the Bohnett fellows, they're also free. (The foundation, not the city, pays for their labor.)

Cole, the deputy mayor of Los Angeles, said the Bohnett fellows bring "intellectual heft" that city hall needs. "They bring their own incisive curiosity to challenges," he said. "It doesn’t take long to explain stuff to them."

This week, the fellows are attending the mayors event as guests, but it's not a stretch to imagine some of them becoming members one day. Many already occupy management positions in the cities where they once interned. And at least one already won a political campaign. Last November, Stephanie Chang, a fellow from the University of Michigan, became the first Asian-American woman elected to the Michigan state legislature.