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Monday, May 5, 2014

Rolling With The Citizens Express

It is very rare for the average citizen to get a chance to see their elected officials at work. On television we watch them pontificate on stage, wag their fingers and make huge promises to the people for their vote. That doesn't translate much; we rarely take them seriously and what they actually do is a mystery to most of us.
The few of us that get access or come close to an understanding of politics are usually involved in extracurricular cause that they feel passionately about. Sometimes getting a close-up just a circumstantial result of said officials job, reaching out to 'the people'. Whatever the case, the closer our elected officials are to constituents the more beholden they are to the constituency's wishes. Or, at the very least, aware.
Awareness was at the heart of the third annual Citizens Express Bus Trip to Albany sponsored by Birnie Bus Co. and Little Fall's David and Chris Van Meter.
The all day event included a tour of The Capitol, lunch with politicians and a live simulcast of the popular local morning show, The Talk of The Town featuring Mark Piersma and Frank Elias.
When I was offered the assignment to tag along and document some of the highlights of the trip, I'll admit, I didn't know what to expect. I knew very little about the popular radio show on 100.7 F.M.. My understanding was limited to a couple of interviews. One featured Editor in Chief of The Utica Phoenix, Cassandra Harris Lockwood, defending herself against allegations of slander and libel brought by The City of Utica Police Department. It was good radio but I felt they were taking a side, so naturally when this trip came up I assumed I would be on the bus with 'The Tea Party'.
Boy, was I wrong.

The Ride

Our scheduled departure was 7:45 from The North Utica Wal-Mart. Birnie Bus provided one of their best coaches for the trip. A wi-fi paradise abuzz with young professionals from Leadership Mohawk Valley. This sharp, young group, all familiar with each other quickly settled into their seats. I couldn't help but notice almost all of them were smiling.
Mark immediately set the pace to mellow making me regret running red lights and risking speeding tickets to get there on time. "Lets leave about eight" he says. "Some people might be a little late". And so we did.
Roughly twenty minutes, good conversation and thirty jokes later we arrived in Herkimer to pick up the second load for Leadership Mohawk Valley's Government Program.
Our third stop was in Amsterdam where we picked up the last group that included retired Executive Assistant, Barbara Tomasik a 45 year veteran of G.E. in Schenectady New York where she has experienced and witnessed a wave of progress/change since she embarked on her long career. She ended up sitting next to me so we chatted about technical and social advances that have altered our world, high security clearance and, of course, what was for lunch
With the bus en route for the final leg of the journey Mark and Frank went about their daily business of talk radio. Jason Aiello, the hands -on producer, checked levels and made sure they had a signal. I barely noticed there was a radio show going on. One of my tactics as a journalist is to appear uninterested and engaged in my latest app so know one knows I am actually paying attention. It didn't work because Birnie Bus wi-fi works great and I 'REALLY' was engaged when I looked up they had conducted two, three, maybe five interviews and according to Frank "Dave we are going to interview you next".
"Uhhhhh....ok" I replied.
I'm not sure exactly what I said but it had a lot to do with potential, growth, green things and overall progress...In Utica. All wrapped up in a liberal progressive package. The main theme of my message was "Grow Green Things....Grow lots of Green Herbs".

The Capitol

We arrived around ten thirty at the main Entrance to the underground concourse that runs the length of the four, symbolic towers that DEFINE our State Government and Albany's skyline. The Four Towers Stand out and upon approach one can glean what the most important business in Albany is, but what that business does, is a mystery.

Frank and Mark corralled all 43 of us to explain the itinerary for the next three plus hours. It was a busy day at the capitol. The Mixed Martial Arts Lobby was there; the Minimum Wage Lobby and The Marines all petitioning our state Government for their particular causes.
If we were lucky we could get a view inside the chamber and possibly a Glimpse of The Governor himself.

We made our way to the agreed upon space where we would be eating lunch. It was a long walk, made interesting by the occasional sighting of a familiar elected official. We spotted a few Assemblymen and Legislators on the way, among them, Claudia Tenney, the 115th District Assembly-Woman and challenger to 22nd District Congressman Richard Hanna. Upon sighting Mark and Frank she greeted us enthusiastically. Gazing from afar I appraised her riding boots and purse, I can't help it, the lady has style.
We continued on our endless journey through the underground concourse, which is a marvel of engineering in itself. One could think of the four towers as a huge skyscraper with its base buried in the ground with only the four towers showing up top, indestructible they will endure ,like our Government, long after we are gone. Four Strong Pillars. One Foundation.

The thought of lunch was on everyone's mind but before we ate we were led to 'The Million Dollar Staircase' for an up close and personal look at Dean Skelos, The Senate Majority leader responsible for slowing up The Medical Marijuana Bill.

After a twenty minute wait, Skelos accompanied by Joseph Griffo (47th District Senator), offered a few obligatory remarks about participation in local government. It is an art to speak important words that lead nowhere, the verbal ambiguity was forgiven, they had our hunger on their side. We did a group Photo and made our way to lunch.


There, waiting for us in The Lunch area, was Rayan Aguam The Director of Communications for Joseph Griffo. He actually provided more detail and insight to what happens in State Government than anyone. While we ate he provided details for what is referred to as The Legislative Season which runs roughly from January to June. The remaining months of the year are spent with constituents or campaigning. He also introduced some of the speakers scheduled to talk to us. Dan Levy a pollster from Sienna College's Research Institute, Marc Butler 118th District Assemblyman, Brian Sampson from Unshackle Upstate (unshackle?) and Anthony Brindisi.

There were a few eyebrow raisers during the speeches, some teaching points that resonate to this day. Dan Levy pointed out the perceived irony in Hydro-Fracking poll results which see a statistical advantage Upstate for Pro-Frackers and a statistical disadvantage the further south you go. There was also the anti-progressive stance of Marc Butler an elected official who shared his thoughts on the SAFE act and the potential for Horizontal Fracking in NYS. "It'll be like raining jobs in a desert" he promised..."at least for the first few months" he amended.

There was a particularly interesting exchange between one of the guests and Brian Sampson who erroneously stated that hydro-fracking has been done safely for the last sixty years in New York State. Wrong, if that was the case we wouldn't be spending millions for all these independent studies and Governor Cuomo would already be Golfing with natural gas big wigs. No, the horizontal fracking, which uses chemicals and water to extract the natural gas is not proven safe in all conditions and has been scrutinized even where its allowed. Sampson, looking like a guy who can take a punch, backed out of an exchange with the guest and sheepishly left the podium. That was definitely a highlight; how dare you try to mislead us, glad we had an expert because it would have worked.
That was what I took away from this trip. To be diligent about my own personal relationship to an issue and let my elected official , regardless of their party affiliation know how I feel.