BY LEA SEVCIK
This year, 32 lucky Republicans got to take two days off from HLS to engage in close encounters with a who’s who of Washington politics, including Justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O’Connor, EPA chief Christie Whitman, Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Rep. Tom DeLay at the annual HLS Republicans Washington trip, which took place March 6 and 7.
This year’s trip was the group’s largest to date, with participation up substantially from last year’s count of about 20 participants. Demand exceeded the expectations even of 2L Katie Biber, president of the HLS Republicans, who said she originally hoped for a group of 25.
Once in D.C., the trip was an exciting whirlwind of meetings, handshaking and photo ops with some of the most influential figures in contemporary politics. According to Biber, “Every minute was full — people were ready to fall over by the end.”
The most poignant experience for 1L Tessa Platt, who helped organize the trip, was meeting Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh ’93. “He talked about Miguel Estrada and political nominations, and about what it is like when you’re a conservative and a minority,” she said. “As a Native American student, it was encouraging to hear from another conservative political leader who’s a member of a minority. It gives you support and solidarity.”
Mark Barrera, a 1L, also enjoyed meeting with Dinh. “He was very likeable personally, and the only speaker who asked about us and our interests. He is a rising star, very ambitious, very credible, full of energy and passionate about his job. His background makes you respect him, coming into this country and succeeding.”
One-L Lee Rudofsky said he was most impressed by the “phenomenal” meeting with Ken Mehlman ’91, White House Director of Political Affairs. “Even though he’s achieved so much, he’s still idealistic and passionate about what he’s doing,” he said. “He was extraordinarily interesting and impressive with his knowledge of the country and his ability to jump between statistics, analysis and predictions. He put in a plug for public service and service to country and made me want to sign up for some sort of service.”
Indeed, 2L Jonathan Skrmetti was pleased that so many of the speakers emphasized public service. “Their universal message was a commitment to public interest. They encouraged us to take time and work in the public sector, told us that we are blessed with substantial opportunities coming out of HLS and that we ought to consider giving to society rather than going straight for the big bucks.”
Skrmetti said he was most impressed with Jack Oliver, Deputy Chair of the Republican National Committee. “Even though some think the current campaign finance reform benefits Republicans, [the RNC] is taking a strong stand against it because they believe it is unconstitutional and wrong. It was nice to see someone putting principle ahead of political points.”
Plummer gushed about his meeting with Scalia, who talked about judicial activism and the politicization of the process. “He said it’s silly that people talk about moderate and extreme judges. We wouldn’t have that problem if we were only looking at the text of the documents and if judges weren’t making policy decisions,” Plummer said.
Students found their encounter with O’Connor memorable as well. “I was surprised at how friendly and approachable she was,” Platt said. “Before this I saw her only as the swing vote.”
Biber also praised O’Connor’s genuine concern for students. “She ended our meeting by telling us that she had just returned from a Stanford Law School reunion. She said the reunion committee had taken a survey, and the majority of her classmates said if they had the opportunity to make the decision all over again, they would not have become attorneys. This upset her a great deal, and she told us that she sincerely hoped we could find a niche within the legal profession so at our own reunions we won’t regret the choice to become attorneys. It was obvious the story came from the bottom of her heart.”
Students also met with other political movers, such as White House Counsel Al Gonzales ’82, who in Skrmetti’s words “sat down and talked straight with us for a while.” For Thursday dinner, many seized the opportunity to chat about campaign finance reform and Bush v. Gore with Ben Ginsberg, National Counsel for Bush 2000 and the former Chief Counsel for the Republican National Committee.
Students said they were appreciative that so many major political figures “took the time out of their schedules to talk to us even though we’re not important people.” According to Biber, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay “enjoyed talking with us so much he ignored the vote bell twice. Finally an aide came in and dragged him away.”
Platt added praise for a speaker lineup that included so many HLS alums, and said she was impressed at how so many of them are doing great things in the administration and government.
Many of the students in the group said they hope to eventually enter careers in politics and public service, and they saw the Washington trip as an excellent opportunity to meet with those who have done similar things and succeeded.
“The intellect and caliber of the speakers, what they are doing and have done, was only surpassed by their passion for ideas and ideals in government service,” Rudofsky said. “It was humbling to be around so many intelligent minds who also feel exactly like I do about wanting to serve our country.”