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Anton ChionoAnton Chiono

Anton Chiono: Bridging the Divide

We live in divided times in the United States - red states versus blue states; conservatives versus liberals; environmentalists versus business interests. Junior environmental science major Anton Chiono found out firsthand that the issues facing our nation are complex, but in many cases, we may not be as far apart as we think.

Chiono, a Willamette University Hatfield Scholar who has also just won a Udall scholarship, spent four months this year working in Washington, D.C., as an intern in Republican Senator Gordon Smith's office. Chiono, a self-described moderate Democrat who has worked for environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, wanted to work for a congressman who more closely reflected his own political leanings. The only opening was in Smith's office.

Coming from the tiny eastern Oregon ranching community of Summer Lake, Chiono says conservative political views aren't unfamiliar to him. "Many of my friends and neighbors are conservative. Going into this internship, I knew that I may not agree with Senator Smith's office, but I thought it would be a good opportunity to examine another perspective."

It was tougher than he thought. "The atmosphere was a lot more partisan than I expected," says Chiono. As an intern, he worked at least nine hours a day on Capitol Hill answering phones, sorting and distributing correspondence to legislative correspondents, chauffeuring the senator to meetings and events, leading Capitol tours for constituents and dignitaries and conducting research at the Library of Congress. "There was a lot of banter and partisan comments in the office about colleagues and pieces of legislation."

Adjusting to big city life was also more difficult than he expected. "For a boy from Summer Lake [population 85], Washington, D.C., was a bit of an adjustment," says Chiono in his characteristically understated manner. He learned quickly that the city streets go from green to mean from block to block. "I'd been warned that the quality of the neighborhoods can change drastically. One day, I turned the wrong way, went through an underpass and ended up in a very different sort of neighborhood. I quickly turned around."

He spent weekends soaking up the sights, including visiting Smithsonian Museum and historical sites. "Washington, D.C., has an amazing atmosphere. You read about this stuff in history books. To be walking down hallways where famous statesmen and women walked and go to the National Archives and see documents like the Constitution was a powerful experience. It left me feeling very patriotic and proud."

In addition to working long hours in Smith's office and playing tourist, Chiono spent his time conducting environmental research for an independent study project on fire policy. He found the power of being a Senate staffer streamlined his research. "I knew I could use the Library of Congress, but I didn't realize the research librarians would be at my beck and call. I asked to be directed to some papers I was looking for and the librarian said, 'I don't know if we can have all of these to you by this afternoon. Would it be okay if we sent this one, which is located in Maryland, to you by tomorrow morning?' It was exciting to have that kind of resource."

Chiono also used his research skills to build Senator Smith's case for opening the Biscuit Fire area to salvage logging. It was not something Chiono personally supported. "At first, I felt I was compromising my beliefs and I had to think long and hard about what I was doing. A lot of the science being quoted was politically motivated. But I also took a lot of calls from constituents dependent on the timber industry in southern Oregon. Logging is their livelihood and they'd say 'we need this sale.' These were very heartfelt pleas and I realized the Senator is trying to help his constituents."

His struggle didn't change his personal political views, but it made him realize that he isn't as open-minded as he thought. "I've spent the last three years in a liberal college atmosphere. I've become extremely idealistic in some areas. This experience showed me that I'd become somewhat close-minded. It was good for me to look at both sides of issues and examine the places in myself where I may not be doing that."

He admits his internship experience has taught him that most issues don't have easy solutions. "Politics has the potential to affect a great deal of positive change," says Chiono, who hopes to pursue a master's degree in forestry and then maybe a degree in environmental law. "You have to understand both the science and the politics behind issues, especially as they become more politicized. Nothing is black and white. It was an eye opener for me to learn that sometimes you have to compromise. You just have to keep an open mind."