News & Politics

Congressional Intern Housing Has Become A Partisan War Zone in the Trump Era

An ex-prison guard is trying to keep the peace.

Melanie Foos of the Washington Intern Housing Network. Photograph by Evy Mages

Each year, tens of thousands of interns descend on DC, and about 900 of them will find temporary digs through the Washington Intern Housing Network. For ten years, the company has provided rooms for these seasonal visitors, a new batch of whom will arrive this month. That’s when they’ll meet Melanie Foos.

As the WIHN’s housing coordinator, Foos makes room assignments and acts as the residents’ all-purpose liaison. Part coach, part disciplinarian, she has a knack for suppressing collegiate rebellion—typically, pool-curfew violations and drinking. Foos has the steely bearing of an enforcer and also a wicked sense of humor—traits perhaps honed during her previous career as a corrections officer in Indiana prisons. “My nickname?” she says. “It’s the Warden.”

Ever since Donald Trump took office, Foos’s current job has sometimes resembled her last one. She ticks off the disputes: screaming matches about abortion, silent treatments over Brett Kavanaugh, the war between an apartment of pro-Trump men and one, right down the hall, occupied by female Hillary Clinton sympathizers. “They would tape Trump things on the Clinton door and Clinton things on the Trump door,” says Foos, until the tribes couldn’t cross paths without shouting.

Recently, one liberal Hill intern has been deliberately provoking a staunchly conservative National Guardsman by sporting a Colin Kaepernick jersey; another unit has clashed over Trump’s sex life. “You didn’t use to have as many fights and things of that nature,” says Foos. “With this administration, you do.” Not all conflicts are political: Competition over a Michelle Obama internship once brought two women to blows. (Police came after one accosted the other with a flatiron hair straightener.)

Still, such incidents are outliers. Many residents forge long-term relationships. One housing group of seven women, who met and bunked together at the WIHN, still live together on Capitol Hill. And Foos has cultivated close friendships, too, including students who turned to her for comfort during breakups or unexpected tragedies. In those cases, Foos says, “I’m there as a mom.”

In the end, reconciliation among the students may be as much a survival instinct as a directive from “the warden.” As Foos tells her charges when they move in, “You may be working for a ‘D,’ or an ‘R,’ but you’re doing the exact same job. Leave it at the door.”

A version of this article appears in the January 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

Benjamin Wofford
Staff Writer

Benjamin Wofford is a contributing editor at Washingtonian.