A long career at the Capitol served as great preparation for Leonor Ehling to become director of Sac State's Center for California Studies. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Leonor Ehling was finishing her degree in political economy at UC Berkeley in the 1980s when she considered applying for the Capital Fellows program, a focal point of Sacramento State’s Center for California Studies.

Being “shy and bookish,” however, Ehling demurred. “I didn’t think the Capitol would be a good place for an introvert like me,” she says.

Turns out, though, it’s a good fit. Ehling, armed with extensive experience working for the state Legislature after earning degrees from UC Berkeley and Harvard, now leads the center as its director, responsible for, among other things, the Capital Fellows program she once avoided.

In the job since March 2018, Ehling is feeling ever more at home at the center. With offices on campus and at Sac State downtown, it is responsible for researching state issues and challenges, helping guide future leaders interested in public service, and promoting knowledge and understanding of California’s government, people and history.

And it is another example of Sac State’s commitment to being the city’s anchor university, to which President Robert S. Nelsen is so committed.

“I love it,” Ehling says of Sac State. “There is something I can’t quite describe about the energy here. It’s a very dynamic place.”

Discussing her job and responsibilities during a December interview in her Tahoe Hall office, Ehling noted that her two decades at the Capitol provided experience that matches well with her new position and allowed her to participate in the important work of governance.

Ehling held a wide variety of positions in her legislative career, serving as deputy director of the Senate Rules Committee’s appointments unit immediately before coming to Sac State. In that role, she reviewed gubernatorial appointees subject to Senate confirmation.

Each new job at the statehouse gave her a greater appreciation for her college education, she said. “I really liked the idea that, as I thought about public policy, I was able to apply everything I learned in school,” she says.  

Her work at the Capitol provided the perfect bridge to the Center for California Studies, which is Sac State’s link to the three branches of state government as well as other universities, think tanks and public-service agencies. Its stated mission is to bring academia and government together in an effort to strengthen California’s democracy.

Participants in the center’s nationally recognized Capital Fellows program can directly participate in the legislative, judicial and executive processes. Each year, 64 college graduates from around the nation are selected for paid staff positions in the highest levels of California government. For up to 11 months, fellows perform such tasks as drafting and tracking legislation, writing analyses and speeches, and working in state courts and court administration.

In the center’s Faculty Research Fellows program, staff and faculty work on research projects initiated by state policymakers. Research topics have focused on issues from mental health to education, and have involved Sac State faculty from disciplines including business, economics, criminal justice, psychology and urban studies.

Ehling says she has a long-held interest in public policy and its potential to change people’s lives.

Both of her parents worked in the public health field when she attended high school in Orange County, she says, allowing her to see firsthand how government decisions affected people in ways both good and bad.

During the early years of the AIDS crisis, she observed how “hate and fear” sometimes influenced public reactions and drove policies. Those observations drove her desire to become involved in the process.

“I was interested in how these decisions got made, and how they affected people in positive and negative ways,” she says. She began researching how laws influenced issues such as poverty and access to education and medical care. She volunteered for service projects sponsored by her church and participated in fundraising campaigns.

After earning her degree at Berkeley, Ehling attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. There she worked as a research assistant in regional government, documenting how laws affected issues including housing and income equality. After Harvard she traveled to Mexico, where she worked as a consultant on similar issues.

For about 20 years, Ehling worked in California’s Senate and Assembly, including positions in the Senate Office of Research, the Assembly Education Committee and the Assembly Budget Committee.

The Capitol became a comfortable fit as Ehling overcame her natural shyness and realized, she says, that “democracy involves compromise. The outcome may not be exactly what the author wants, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure.”

She looks back on her Capitol experiences with fondness and pride, she says.

“I was super lucky,” Ehling says. “I had such a wide range of experiences, and many great mentors. I have been traveling with a lucky cloud following me.”

Those early mentors include Kerry Mazzoni, former chair of the Assembly Education Committee; and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, for whom she worked on the Assembly Budget Committee when he was a legislator. Watching them and others work to overcome obstacles in the legislative process – sometimes until the wee hours of the morning – helped reinforce her passion for education and public service, she says.

That passion has continued at Sac State, where she was reunited with Edward Lascher, one of her former Harvard professors. Lascher, interim dean of the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies, served as an Assembly Fellow in 1978, long before he met Ehling.

Lascher says Ehling brings “a thoughtful, collaborative style” to her new job, and an openness to innovative ideas.

“The Center for California Studies director is an unusual position that requires both sensitivity to and a deep understanding of our downtown partners,” including legislative leaders, and “an appreciation of the center’s role in an academic institution,” Lascher says. “Leonor is that rare person who seems comfortable in both worlds.”

Ehling says she feels “as though I’m part of something bigger” at Sac State. “Who wouldn’t want to work at a university?” she asks.

“Sac State gives a lot of people the opportunity to move up the economic ladder through education,” Ehling says. “We are helping students build better lives for themselves and their families. I feel like I’m part of a community, and I love that.” – Cynthia Hubert