This week, I experienced my first tin cup Tuesday, and my first ever visit to Albany while the legislature was in session. Tuesdays in Albany are known for their “tin cups” because of how many advocacy groups show up to talk to members that day. Most groups are asking for money (thus the tin cup) but this week, we were not, we just asked for reform, for change. It was a big day for groups who loved things (it was Valentine’s Day after all). People “Loved” the Arts, and “Loved” the NY Dream. We were all on the same page, trying to keep our schools open, competitive, and with programs intact.
It was easy to see how busy it was when you tried to catch an elevator. I can say I used the stairs 99% of the time, using the Legislative Office Building elevators only once. I was there with the Let NY Work coalition, “We Love Mandate Relief”. We were asking Senators and Assemblymen to look at our six point plan for mandate relief (one point being pension reform, so there was lots of talk about Tier VI).
I spent six and a half hours wandering from the Legislative Office Building, to the Capital, and back again. If you’ve never been to the Capital building you should go. You don’t have to be promoting anything or asking for anything, but the Capital (unlike the Legislative Office Building) is oddly beautiful on the inside. Look down into the Senate or Assembly Chamber and tell me you don’t like those stained glass windows. You begin to understand why people work in politics as you move from office to office. From the freshman members on the lower floors, with their Styrofoam ceiling tiles, to the suites on the upper floors, and then to the Senate Majority Leaders Office, you see that there’s something to work towards. We even had one meeting off the Senate floor in the “Lobby” with some very comfortable green couches.
It wasn’t only the offices that changed as the day went on, but the reception we received, my group of local government and school board members, business organization reps, superintendents, and Unshackle Upstate. Out of seven meetings, six took place and one was rescheduled. Out of the remaining six, three took place with staff members, and three took place with actual representatives. (As this was my first trip I can’t say if that’s common or not).
Out of these six meetings I can say no one promised us anything. Two representatives were kind enough to hear us out and offer words of encouragement. One staff member asked us direct questions to better his understanding of our material, but that was as positive as things really got. In one meeting we were told they were familiar with our material and weren’t too keen on hearing it again, but they didn’t have too many questions either. Was it nice of them to see us anyway? Sure. No one was outright disagreeable or shouting us down, which I hear was a good thing (though we did have one confrontational meeting). By confrontational, I mean they were clear that their stance on mandate relief issues was different than ours and, while they took our material, a change of heart wasn’t happening yesterday.
The legislators we got to see face to face at least feigned interest in what we had to say. While we had some kind staff members talk to us, you kind of feel passed over when they Senator or Assemblyman skips out on you, no matter who the staff person is. Whether they’re friendly or confrontational, it almost doesn’t matter. How much hope is there for any support if you can’t even say for sure your words passed over the legislator’s ears? If I can’t be sure the legislator heard the side I presented then maybe he’ll/she’ll never hear both sides of any issue, and how can he/she be sure of his/her stance and decision?
So, what did I learn? 1) Wear comfortable shoes. 2) Smile, sometimes it’s all you can do, and it’s appreciated. 3) Legislators are going to be bombarded from both sides, it’s the nature of the beast; all you can do is be polite and clear. 4) Be persistent, and keep on message. That’s what I learned I can do, but I still have questions on how government can be effective. If staff can’t schedule meetings correctly, or find their legislators when needed, or make time to talk to groups and coalitions, maybe the people don’t have as much to do with the decisions as we’d like to think. How do we know anyone is listening at all? It was exhausting, and I don’t know that I came away with as much concrete support, or even concrete opposition, as I would have liked (but that’s politics, isn’t it?).