Becoming a Lawmaker: Part 2


"Great talking to you, Mike," the voice on the other end of the phone said. "Whatever happens from here, you have friends in the White House."

Not bad for a kid from Queens, I thought. We were discussing America's College Promise, the president's initiative to make community college as accessible as high school. Congress had balked at the idea, so the administration was turning to the states. A more educated population was certainly an important goal, though I had questions about how to pay for it. Even if the investment made sense, the Republican-controlled State Senate was unlikely to fund such a program.

President Obama's staff referred me to key players involved in its implementation elsewhere in the country. It turned out it was largely being funded with private dollars in what amounted to scholarship opportunities for high-performing students. This would be a long-term project, I realized.

"I have that research on CityTicket for you," an intern announced as he handed me a piece of paper.

The Long Island Rail Road's CityTicket program offered $4.25 single direction trips within New York City on weekends. Far Rockaway was excluded, however, with trains traveling to and from that station having to pass through Nassau County. The alleged concern was that Long Islanders would take advantage. Meanwhile, an off-peak ticket to Penn Station was $8.25, almost twice as much as everywhere else in the city.

Now here was an issue we could tackle with more urgency.

We had many arguments for including Far Rockaway Station. First, it was the right thing to do. Last time we checked, Rockaway was still part of New York City and its people should not be deprived of a city benefit. Economic development could be created by making travel to and from the peninsula more affordable. The fear of Nassau residents seeking the discount did not strike us as a good reason to leave Rockaway out since there were already other stations close to the border where CityTicket was available. Furthermore, the price of a train ticket is supposed to be determined by where you take the train, not where you live.

The Democratic Conference, tasked with helping us advance legislation, was initially unconvinced the majority would entertain our bill -- the Long Island Rail Road Fare Act -- to correct the problem. Besides, it was still early in the session and the focus was on the state budget. That process involved a series of late nights in the Capitol, including a twenty-five hour shift where I managed a few naps in the Legislative Office Building during down time. When it was all said and done, the budget included $10.15 million for St. John's Hospital and $12.94 million for transportation improvements in Rockaway.

But I was still determined to move the Fare Act.

We held a press conference at the train station. Back in the capital, I fielded questions from reporters over the phone. Every morning, our office placed a call to the Senate Transportation Committee to inquire about getting the bill on the next meeting agenda. I had an intern produce a map showing how Rockaway was getting the short end of the stick. We had several meetings with the director of the committee, including some uninvited visits. Every time an article was published about poor transportation in south Queens, I forwarded it to said director.

Our persistence paid off and the bill eventually made it to the agenda. That meant it would be considered and voted on by members of the committee. If it passed, it would have the chance to reach the Senate floor. It was seen as an improbable occurrence to get this far. But there was one problem.

They say laws are like sausages in that it is best not seeing them made. Our bill had been through revisions since its first draft was passed down to me. Its current form contained clarifying language that was politically troublesome for one particular senator who wielded enough influence to ensure the legislation's defeat. He began voicing his displeasure and our progress was halted.

At a cocktail party in Albany one night, my colleague scoped out this senator socializing with some big wigs. She asked if I thought she should approach him.

"This ought to be good," I replied, knowing I could not stop her if I wanted.

I followed as she walked up and made a spot for herself at the table, then apologized for intruding. He welcomed her to the group and acknowledged my presence.

"So, I play softball in Far Rockaway every weekend, and the commute is very expensive," she told him. "This is going somewhere, I promise."

"I know exactly where this is going," the senator retorted with a grin.

He turned to me, explaining why he was not able to support the bill as written. I understood his position and in hindsight was disappointed in myself for not recognizing how the language might have caused an issue. I proposed a new, simpler version that still achieved the desired result for Rockaway. The senator did not object.

"Amend the bill, will you?" he said as he made his dramatic exit.

And with that, it seemed we were back on track.

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