DCCC Internship: Campaigning for a Change in 2016

Written by Alainna Belknap | @tbhoverit | 15 January 2017 at 10:13AM

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After two years of obsessively researching GW and its student life, I had a pretty good idea of what our internship culture would be. In some respects, it was that competitive energy that drew me in. For many of us, the pressure to land an impressive gig and to post pictures with high profile politicians sets in the moment our parents leave and we’re left alone with our new bedspreads and the rest of our lives.

Given the volunteer work I’ve given campaigns in the past, I thought my dream internship would be something a little more glamorous and a little less, well, depressing. To be frank, for me, working in Democratic campaigns has already ended in far too many teary nights and too few celebrations. In this disillusion, as a freshman, I searched for opportunities with Members of the House or Senators in their offices on Capitol Hill, rather than on their campaigns. I ended up spending the semester working as a mentor in a local elementary school, among other community service positions. Since I will be graduating a year early, I began to fear that I was falling behind on the professional experience that I came to GW to gain.

It wasn’t until this fall that I landed the internship of my dreams. Given Donald Trump’s candidacy and all that came with it, it became clear winning the election carried the most consequence and demanded the most immediacy. I began to understand there was no better way to give myself to Democratic causes than to dedicate every ounce of social, emotional, and physical capital in my being to winning seats for Democrats up and down the ballot. I saw a real opportunity to do just that at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the arm of the Democratic National Committee that coordinates vital House races across the country.

Realizing that the bulk of my previous campaign experience was knocking doors and making calls, I applied to be a field intern. After my interview and acceptance, my supervisor encouraged me to take on an analytics internship instead. Because she challenged me, I expanded my skill set more than I ever could have, had she allowed me to stick to what I know. This would be the first time of many that my supervisor would push me to new heights while being the voice of encouragement along the way. I’m fairly confident that I could have happily spent the semester making coffee and running errands, had she been the supervisor guiding my path. However, menial tasks are far from what was entrusted to me as an intern, thanks to my supervisors’ belief in my capabilities.

My biggest project at DCCC was the weekly poll report I compiled for senior staff at the request of the chairman, Rep. Ben Ray Lujàn. Each week, I would research all the public polls that were released, deciding which were reliable and relevant to our work. From there, I generated data visualizations that showed how public opinion changed throughout the election cycle on matters such as individual candidate likeability. Perhaps the most interestingly, I also charted the effect of specific events to each candidate, such as the Access Hollywood leak and James Comey’s letter. On one of my final days at DCCC, a senior staff member approached me unexpectedly, asking if I was Alainna Belknap. He then thanked me for my reports, saying that they were widely read and highly regarded. In the grey blur that enveloped every day following November 9th, his words reminded me that I was building skills that would be relevant to future election cycles in which we could be more successful. That long-term outlook helped me appreciate the work we’d done, despite our results. I am especially grateful for the unique opportunity I had to campaign with fellow DCCC staff on Get Out The Vote (GOTV) weekend.

Of course, as a member of College Democrats’ Executive Board, I spent as many weekends as possible campaigning to elect Hillary Clinton, as I had done during primary season. But on GOTV weekend (the weekend before Election Day), I left for another trip—this time, with DCCC staff. I deployed to New Jersey’s 5th congressional district to help with field operations for Josh Gottheimer’s campaign team. I truly connected with some of the staff members that weekend, many of whom shared words of wisdom and advice about their own careers and future plans. Together, we celebrated Hillary Clinton’s anticipated victory, cried at her campaign wrap-up video in the back of our van, laughed at Donald Trump’s newest Tweets. We spent the dusk of our long winded campaign cycle as a team, tired from the fight behind us but invigorated for the future. Like Democrats across the country, we were wrong in our projections, and we’d spend the weeks and months to come wondering how that could be. Josh Gottheimer did, however, go on to win his race, unseating a Republican whose policies were so violent that nearly every door I knocked was answered by an angry constituent ready for change.

On Election Day, I was given the opportunity to work with senior staff to report election results into the night. As smiles and laughter turned to tears and hugs, it quickly became a night to forget. Despite this, spending 13 feverish hours in a room with the folks behind our 6-seat net gain was unforgettable. For any campaign, there’s something about waiting out those final hours as a team that reminds you why you’re in that campaign headquarters in the first place. Though I ended the night in tears, confused and distressed about my future and the future of my party, I still come back to the words our Chairman spoke to us that night. He implored every member of our team, be us career campaigners or student interns, to refuse defeatism and frustration. His unrelenting optimism, which was founded in the hard work and determination of our team, is an attitude that I strive to embody in the wake of Trump’s election.

Along the way, I was grateful for those moments for which I came to GW with a deep hunger. Leading a phone bank for Nancy Pelosi’s staff made me stop rolling my eyes at the “#OnlyAtGW” campaign, as did visiting Pelosi’s office for a meet and greet. Yes, I finally got my Facebook profile picture with a famous politician, and yes, I was just as excited to post it as I thought I would be in September of my freshman year. However, when I look back, it isn’t those Facebook-worthy moments that comprise the highlights of my 2016 campaigning experience. Politics, whether campaigning or otherwise, will always be about people and the impact the decisions of government make in their lives. It is the woman I spoke to at her doorstep in New Jersey, who nervously quieted me when I asked her if we could count on her support for Democrats. After walking me to the end of her driveway, she told me that I could, but not to tell her husband. It is the man who lived in a halfway house for people experiencing addiction whose door I knocked, who reported happily that we could count on every single resident in the house to vote blue. It is the uninsured woman who leaned Trump that I spoke to on the phone as long as it took to convince her to vote in favor of her health, which ended up approaching 25 minutes. The lives of the people I’ve met on the trail, and my own life, will always be the centerpiece of my drive to serve, campaign, and keep fighting.

My internship at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was a moment in my life I will never forget, mostly because it could never let me. Once 2018 rolls around, I know I will be drawn to the campaigns world like a moth to a flame. As of right now, I’m okay with that. Campaigning introduced me to my highest role model as a woman in politics, my supervisor at DCCC. Campaigning introduced me to the hardworking Americans in states I had never before visited, the ones whose futures I can’t bear to leave to Republican will. In many ways, campaigning introduced me to myself—my abilities, my confidence in myself, and my vision for my own future. If you are looking for a place to start with campaigns or internships, I’d love to share my vision with you.

Alainna Belknap is currently Vice President of Community Service with GW College Democrats, a service assistant with The GW Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, an educator at US Dream Academy, and an Ambassador for Planned Parenthood. She is looking forward to spending the summer in DC as a case investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunities Commision. In her free time, Alainna loves tweeting, watching RuPaul's Drag Race, and attending College Dems events.

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