Becoming a Lawmaker: Part 1


 A year ago, I was searching for apartments in Albany.

I had recently been hired as legal counsel and legislative director for New York State Senator James Sanders Jr. With the Senate resuming in January, my presence would be required daily in the capital. Admittedly, most of my time in New York had been spent around the five boroughs. As I did not appreciate the cold, a trip for me usually entailed heading south. This would be a whole new world, of mountains and sub-zero temperatures and upstate Republicans.

Not knowing what to expect, I wondered if I would be greeted by a team of assistants upon my arrival.

"Will this be a group effort or a one man show?" I somewhat naively asked the chief of staff.

"A one man show," he replied. "You're the show."

There was no team awaiting me -- only a moderately spacious government office with new desks and computers the state had graciously dumped on the floor. I arranged the furniture, plugged everything in and threw up some postings for interns.

Then it was time to go to work.

My strategy in directing the senator's legislative portfolio was to recommend a balance between bills that represented ambitious ideas worth advancing, even if they might not pass in the current political climate, and less sexy proposals more likely see the light of day. Likewise, I sought a healthy mix of changes to statewide policy and local improvements pertinent to Rockaway and south Queens.

One morning, the senator and I arrived early to the minority conference room, where members and staff met before session. I had already made my recommendations on the day's votes and there was still time before the festivities were scheduled to begin.

"Now tell me about the laws you want to make," the senator said.

Our system was that I would pitch law ideas like a salesman, and he would either approve, pass or request changes. Often times he would question me on details, which meant I needed to have language prepared in advance. From his level of enthusiasm, I could tell which ones should be given priority.

"Why don't we introduce a bill imposing a duty on residential landlords to mitigate damages when tenants breach their leases," I suggested.

In other words, the landlord would be required, as in other states, to seek a new tenant to make up for lost rent instead of intentionally keeping the property vacant and suing for damages that could have been reasonably avoided. I explained this as a tension between property law and contract law, of which such obligation was a hallmark.

We were soon in a hypothetical discussion about selling apples and decided we would come back to that one. I flipped the page, turning to my next bill.

"This one, this one I think you'll like."

It was a concept left behind by my predecessor. Called the Long Island Rail Road Fare Act, it sought to remedy the injustice of Far Rockaway Station's exclusion from the weekend reduced fare program. This early version of the bill I inherited mandated that all stations in the system enjoy the same discount. Though well intentioned, that approach was too expensive to be practical.

The senator advised if we could find a way to make it work, it would be a major victory.

That evening, I sat in my apartment with a steak and pondered ways to rewrite the bill. I was still new to this world, but my place in it was becoming more apparent.

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