Young Atascadero woman goes to D.C.

Atascadero High Alumna Mikaela Arneson chosen for exclusive internship at the Capitol

ATASCADERO — Mikaela Arneson already had a resume that would make anyone’s jaw drop: Signed to a Los Angeles dance agency at the age of 17, she has toured with Cher, performed in videos and television and in commercials and ad campaigns all over the world. And she’s one of ours: graduating Atascadero High School, class of 2008, after attending Atascadero Fine Arts Academy.

Arneson comes from a family of dancers and performers. Her grandfather is Atascadero’s past Colony Days king and Dancing with Our Stars Director Frank Sanchez.

She’s also very bright: a straight-A student with one year to go in finishing the Business Honors program at Cal State Los Angeles.

After a long process of interviews and presentations, Arneson was the top pick from her school to be chosen for an internship and scholarship (flight and accommodations included) through the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, the Monterey Peninsula government and politics study center, for an in-depth discovery of public policy. The director of the program had urged her to apply because she remembered Arneson’s interview when she said she would like to impact underserved populations and communities in her future career.

Arneson just returned from Washington D.C. after completing the program, working three months as an intern on Capitol Hill.

As one of 26 congressional interns at the Capitol (one from every Cal State University) Arneson spent a good amount of time working on constituent correspondence: processing their letters, e-mails and phone calls in a database.

She would draft co-sponsorship request forms for her legislative staff, research bills and make recommendations and reports. On a couple nights she and the interns were invited to dinners hosted by sponsors of the institute. She would also attend briefings.

She shared a hotel room in Pentagon City, walking distance from the Pentagon, with an intern from Cal State San Marcos. Each day she would take the Metro to Capitol to one of three House of Representative office buildings.

The professional dancer traded in her leotard for a business suit for those three months.

Arneson said it was a rigorous whirlwind, with an intensive orientation. Political experts, journalists from Politico and former senators prepared her on all the hot topics: immigration, education, party polarity and climate change. By the end of it, she had learned mountains of information about the political process.

She worked every day, nine to five, to return to her hotel room to journal and write papers on what she learned late into the night.

Arneson said the Panetta Institute worked hard to help the interns understand the reasons behind party polarization and she felt the lectures and learning sessions were successfully bipartisan.

“They’re actually pushing for us to understand the reasons why these parties have become more polarized over the years and did not really push an agenda in terms of right or left, so they did a really good job of discussing both sides and even members of the institute are both, so they can offer different viewpoints in their curriculum,” she said. “I already had my foundation and beliefs. I think more than anything, being at the institute reinforced why it is the way it is now – why we’re in gridlock – and the reasons things are messed up right now. So it didn’t make me feel more Democratic or Republican – it was just a heavy moment of understanding that this was really difficult.”

What was difficult, she explained, were that complex issues don’t have easy solutions or just one quick solution. Arneson said to be an effective politician, one needs to have a thick skin to encounter potential disappointments again and again.

“It’s a very difficult job,” she said. “You could work for hours and hours and hours with other senators and congresspeople to draft legislation and present it with cosponsors, but it could just die in committee. There are so many outside factors.”

She said one may have the best intentions to try to improve communities but “at a certain point it’s out of your hands.”

The interns were assigned to work under offices complimentary to their interests. At first, Arneson was matched with U.S. Representative Pete Aguilar of California District 31, but his office was not accepting new interns from outside his district. Instead, she would be set-up, after a successful phone interview, with Congressman Raul Ruiz, M.D. of California District 26 representing the Palm Springs area.  

Congressman Ruiz is a former ER doctor with a great interest in helping with disaster relief and keeping medication costs low, Arneson said. She added that his constituents were of either very low means or very wealthy, and their needs had to be represented whenever she would research bills for Ruiz.

“It’s definitely a diverse community,” she said. “My eyes were opened so many times to what really goes on. One of the most powerful briefings I went to was one about gun violence after the Las Vegas shooting. At these briefings they would talk about what happened so we can be educated and informed for our constituents, in case they call and ask about it, and then also they talked about the certain gun bills that were on the table… what their repercussions are and what they mean.”

“Usually those meetings weren’t as non partisan. There’s definitely a Democrat or Republican side of it,” she said, adding that any staff, regardless of party preference, was welcome to attend those briefings. Arneson would take good notes, and get back to Ruiz’ office with the information.

“That was one of my favorite things to do,” she said.

As far as the “highs” of the internship, the continuing lecture series in D.C. was one of them. She was able to learn about policy and meet with representatives from all branches of the government.

“It was information getting thrown at me,” Arneson laughed. “Up and down. I was in a tornado of it. It was awesome.”

One Congressman, Brian Fitzpatrick, a U.S. Representative for Pennsylvania’s eighth Congressional District, a moderate Republican, and former FBI special agent in California, really stood out to Arneson during the lecture series.  

“I just thought he really understood the foundations of our government and how they were meant to operate, and how far from it we’ve gotten,” she said. “We need campaign finance reform. We need gerrymandering to stop. We need term limits. We need a lot of things. He explained how he didn’t think our Founding Fathers didn’t set this up to be a career. It’s a civil servant position and it’s supposed to be held by different people at different times – not meant to do this forever and ever because then you get trapped only representing your constituents or those who paid for you to get there. It becomes corrupt.”

“He was in charge of the political corruption unit,” Arneson said of Fitzpatrick, commenting on how many politicians have lost their way, “He just really had a great take on what his role really is. He won’t go with party lines if it’s not the best for our country.”

In case readers are wondering, Arneson did not run into President Trump.

“I did hear Ivanka (Trump) was in my office building in Longwood,” Arneson said. “But I didn’t see her. I passed (Senator) Kamala Harris in the hallway a few times. My friends passed (Senator) Bernie (Sanders). I would have to go drop off documents on the Capital side on the House floor. There’s this place called the ‘Cloak room’ right off the House floor, which is where you drop off amendments, or visual aides that need to go on the floor. So when you’re over in that area, it’s high-traffic, so you walk by (Senator) Cory Booker… everyone was kind of out and about.”

Because Arneson’s member, Congressman Ruiz, is on the Hispanic Caucus, she was able to attend a couple of their meetings and met three of their highest ranking members. Usually it’s just staffers and advocacy groups, she said, but “it was really cool to hear, in a room of maybe 15 of us, from Representative Michelle Grisham, Representative Gallego from Arizona, Representative Aguilar — to hear from them, specifically about DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], I was able to hear where they were at as far as our efforts. It was cool to sit at a round table with them. What was crazy was that right when I got there, (Attorney General) Jeff Sessions released the DACA statement.”

After that, she said the times were a spiral of issue after issue: Two hurricanes, Health Care bills that didn’t pass and the Vegas shooting.

“It was one thing after another, after another, so we were just adapting to the crisis,” Arneson said. “The phones are going off the hook. Everyone is trying to work and talk to our constituents about what was happening. It was nuts!”

She also accepted an invitation to have dinner with Former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and his wife Sylvia. Arneson didn’t share a table with the Panettas, but she was able to meet and mingle with them and their colleagues. She was also excited to meet Representative Jimmy Panetta, the son of Leon Panetta. He came over to talk to Arneson with his wife, and later scheduled a follow up meeting with Arneson. As Congressman for the the 20th Congressional District in the Monterey County area, Arneson liked what she learned about his work. Rep. Panetta is a part of the “Problem Solvers Caucus,” a congressional group trying to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans.

“They’re just so easy to talk to,” Arneson said. “Secretary Leon Panetta just has so many stories. He’s such an interesting man. He’s held so many different positions in different administrations.”

“His name is associated with huge things that have happened in our country — him leading the task force for getting Bin Laden and also in the Clinton administration he was head of the budget office the only time in our history when we had a surplus. Not him alone, but he’s attached to these big moments in our Nation’s history, so we loved our dinner with them,” she added.

Arneson said she’s thinking about one more internship before graduation. She will also continue to work a consumer relations job at Success Dance, an L.A. dance guidance service for parents and children.

The future is bright for Arneson, who said she hopes to one day work in government affairs or possibly entertainment/marketing. And if she ever wants to work at the Capitol, the legislative director for Congressman Ruiz told Arneson she has a job whenever she’s ready. They told her they’ve never had an intern like her.

Just this Thanksgiving break, she became engaged to a fellow professional dancer. Arneson said he helped her through the arduous Panetta Internship application process, and she’s “over the moon” about getting married.

As her mother, Paso Robles resident Mara Sanchez, likes to say in her house, “It’s good to be Mikaela!”


You may reach reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback.

© 2018-Atascadero News

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