Notes from the Freshman Class: N.Y.’s Newest Pols Reflect on Their First Year
Politicians’ summer recesses aren’t quite as relaxing as summer vacations. Getting away from Washington, Albany or City Hall just means more time for meetings with constituents. But it’s still a bit of a break — especially this year, following marathon sessions over debt ceilings, gay marriage and budgets that dragged into the summer.
While they had half a moment for some reflection, MetroFocus caught up with some of New York’s newest representatives to find out how they’ve been dealing with the reality of living as a legislator.
“The process of running for office was so intense, I had very few specific notions about what it would be like,” said Nan Hayworth, a freshman Republican who’s representing parts of the lower Hudson Valley in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Mostly, it turns out, it means a lot of work. “It takes every ounce of your strength and energy and time,” she said.
It also means having to get along with people you never imagined you would work so closely with. Gustavo Rivera, who took over disgraced former State Sen. Pedro Espada’s seat, had worked in politics for many years before running for office, so he was prepared for the workload, but not for the company he would be keeping.
For many years, he worked in what he calls “the infantry of the Democratic Party,” getting others elected to office. That meant seeing Republicans as opponents to be defeated. Now, though, they’re colleagues.
“I have to work with them whether I agree with them or not,” he said. Hayworth campaigned on a smaller-government platform, but says, sounding a bit surprised even now, “What’s really encouraging is that there are a lot of terrific, well-meaning, good-hearted, intelligent people in Washington, D.C. There actually are!”
As freshmen, legislators tend to have fewer opportunities to spearhead major bills that make it into law. New York City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, a Democrat who represents downtown neighborhoods like Chinatown and the Financial District, had worked for many years in community organizing and was expecting, as a legislator, to be able to jump in and pass laws to correct problems she saw in her community.
“What I found was, it’s not that easy to pass laws,” she said. “It takes a long time to get legislation introduced, worked on, and then trying to get a hearing.”
In her first year on the Council, Chin ended up focusing more on constituent services, she said.
One of Hayworth’s major legislative pushes began just this summer, when she teamed up with some more senior colleagues to push for a program that would help homeowners finance clean energy improvement.
Rivera, however, did have his first bill passed in the State Senate in the last week of the session. It expands a pilot program allows nonprofits to post bail in order to keep people from pleading guilty just to avoid jail time. (The bill also passed the Assembly but has yet to become law.)
“This is a great bill,” Rivera said. “It was a great moment… Neil Breslin, the deputy leader of the Democratic conference and a friend congratulated me on the floor. There was a little bit of applause when I passed the bill. I was very proud.”
The trade-off for that kind of rush is giving up a degree of private life.
“You have to work very hard,” said Chin. “I’m on seven committees, and I chair one of them. They’re all important committees. I just have a tendency to want to be at everything.”
“You need to have a family and very loving friends who will support this kind of effort,” Hayworth said. “That is a sacrifice on the part of your loved ones as well.”
For, Rivera, the spotlights shines brighter than he had expected.
“I get recognized when I walk outside,” Rivera said. “I was at the 99-cent store around the corner from my house, and someone said to me, ‘You’re that guy, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m your senator,’ and he asked me, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m buying toilet paper.’”
“That’s something that really didn’t happen to me before,” he adds.