Thursday, June 4, 2015

Memoirs from an Internship at the Legislative Office Building, Albany

Michelle Ponce

West of the Hudson river, 180 miles north is the State Capitol where the crisp winter air is stronger and lasts longer. Albany, or smallbany jokingly, is a small compared to New York City-the home I know so well. My spidey senses tingled, but you cannot, or at least you should not, judge a book by its cover. On January 6th, 2014 I started my legislative internship in the New York State Assembly, the lower house of the legislature for those of you who did not know. To be frank, I barely knew anything about state government either. Im a Economics and History major, not a Political Science major. It is only natural to question, therefore, why a college junior with no experience in government, in school or in the real world, was committing herself to a five month internship in a city she had never been to?
            With little to no preparation, I settled in Albany, NY. Just two weeks before I found an apartment ten minutes from Empire State Plaza, the complex in Downtown Albany that houses the Capitol, Legislative Office Building, Hart Theatre, and more. It was my first internship there and I did not know anyone else in the program. Walking into a room full of college seniors where everyone seemed to know each other was nothing short of intimidating. What a great first day!          
            Orientation was a week long process. We learned the logistics and functions of the Assembly and the LOB (Legislative Office Building) from Committee meetings to the Assembly Chambers, Bill Drafting and Index to the food court, the pay and weekly class. Orientation was definitely not the most thrilling, but it was informative and I started to meet the other interns.
            Back to the good stuff, several employees of the Assembly in the Majority (the Democrats) and Minority (the Republicans) participated on our panels to describe their jobs. Many of them were past interns. They shared their intern experiences and the road to their current positions. Despite the different party lines and backgrounds, there was a common theme, dedication. Working in the public sector is more than just a Monday through Friday, nine to five job. This is the legislative process by which the laws of New York State are made and passed, which eventually affect all New Yorkers and set the precedence for other states. It is complex situation with the divide of Upstate and Downstate politics that makes process all the more intensive and critical. I had fallen victim to the downstate set of mind when I questioned why the State Capitol was not in New York City.  As a city dweller, I categorize the area outside of the five boroughs as Westchester, Long Island and Upstate. However, Upstate is more than that, it is Southern Tier, Western New York,  Mohawk  Valley, Hudson Valley, and the Finger Lakes regions just to name a few.                  
            On the last day of orientation, everyone we received our temporary IDs (these would not get us past the airport style security to enter the LOB) and assigned offices. Some interns had specifically requested to work with a specific Assembly Member, I did not. I walked into this internship without the slightest idea about State Government, I knew the basics but none of the specifics. By reviewing the interests specified on my application, I was placed in the office of Assembly Member Felix W. Ortiz; state representative for the 51st Assembly district, chair of the Assembly Cities Committee and the Puerto Rican / Hispanic Task Force. Assembly Member Ortiz is one of the most senior Hispanic members and has served a tenure of twenty years. Everyone in New York State can relate to him, he passed the law to ban the use of cell phones while driving in 2001. Without much experience in government or a directly related, I was placed in the office of a senior member, which meant the work load would be more intense wasnt I lucky?
            Right away, I was faced with a serious dilemma, and my decision would affect the rest of my internship. I had two options: work four days a week and enjoy a three day weekend in a city I barely knew anyone in, or I could work five days a week and fully immerse myself into the legislative process. This was truly a tough decision to make, but in the end I chose to work the five days, which did not turn out to be so bad. Session tended to run into Wednesday at the latest (until it May and June), which meant that Thursday and Fridays were dress down days and more relaxed days. On these relaxed days I had a chance to visit other offices and meet other staffers. The most intense session days were Tuesdays because they were also the biggest lobby days. Tuesday is the day every lobbying firm and constituent from the whole state travel to Albany to speak to their elected representatives. To be honest, it was fun. Hundreds of people walked through the LOB and the line through security wrapped around several times; luckily our real IDs came in quick and we could bypass the line and use the side portals to enter and exit the LOB. But what really happens during session? It is when the elected officials in the Assembly (and Senate) convene in the Assembly Chambers to bring bills to the floor, debate them (if necessary), and vote on them. Once a bill passes through the Assembly, it must go through the Senate through a similar process; if it passes the Senate then it is delivered to Governor, who will decide on whether or not to sign it into law. What is a bill? In simple terms, it is a proposal to create or amend laws in the state. It can only be introduced by an Assembly Member in the Assembly, and a Senator in the Senate. Once the bill is live, it will go through committees where the committee members will vote to stall or pass the bill onto the next committee. Eventually, the bill makes it to the floor. In the 2014 legislative session (which runs from January to June), I was able to sit down on the debates for medical marijuana, abortion, womens equality, and LGBT rights, just to name the most salient ones. Some of debates between members were very animated. In Chambers, different values and beliefs from all parts of the State were represented. Although I must admit I questioned where some of the Members got their reasoning from, especially the Minority.          
            The first hand experience was incredible. I never imagined myself sitting in on meeting between legislators and policy makers. Sometimes I took meetings on behalf of the Assembly Member, which was always a little intimidating because I was afraid I would say the wrong thing. I listened to groups like the Adirondack Club that did not want the list of approved ATVs to expand in order to preserve the terrain of the Adirondack mountains; union members advocating for stricter work safety laws and a higher minimum wage; people with chronic diseases urging the passage of medical marijuana to ease their pain; the American Heart Association lobbying for the ban of trans-fats in New York and so much more. Towards the end I felt comfortable taking meetings and even welcomed them after all I always learned something new.                         
            I saw the application for the internship in the History department while I was waiting for my Spring advisement: at first sight it seemed interesting and it was enticing because there was a stipend, and something is better than nothing. I spoke to Dr. Dolores Augustine about the internship, she helped me with my application, resume and writing sample. She was a great source of help and guidance, when I hesitated she reassured me. Because of this internship, I have new goals and desires. Last year I was not sure about what I wanted to do after college and did not care much about the State government and politics. Now, its like Ive become addicted to the legislative process, and I want to pursue a career in policy making and public service.

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