A thousand small steps toward a more perfect union

Richard Brodsky for Times Union

Originally published in Times Union

It's difficult to measure legislative success. And what exactly do the 213 men and women elected to the Legislature do with their time? We read about the daily political conflicts, the big issues, and the peccadilloes, They actually obscure the daily reality of serving in the Senate and Assembly. Legislators spend most of their time pursuing their individual legislative agendas. It's important stuff and gets very little attention.

The big stuff is widely known. Rent law reform, protection of reproductive rights, climate change, Dream Act, vaccination exemptions and elimination of cash bail highlighted the session. You can like or dislike the specifics, but a lot got done.

But individual members pursued less-prominent legislation and prevailed. You may not have read about it, but there will be improvements in motor boat safety, the wages of car wash workers, early voting, the ethical treatment of cats, grants to encourage new farmers, and more.

Let's look at two of these in some detail.

For decades farmworkers have been left out of the legal protections available to other employees. The reasons had to do with the precarious economics of farming in New York and the abject powerlessness of farmworkers. It left us with an agricultural workforce that in many cases was abused to the point of real suffering.

For over two decades Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, D-Queens, doggedly tried to end the farmworker exclusion. She's a tough lefty from a middle-class district with no farmworkers in it. She had some success in the Assembly, but year after year the bill died. This year she joined forces with Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, an insurgent who was part of the successful challenge to Republican control of the Senate.

Even with the new power dynamic, Nolan and Ramos had a lot of work to do. They paid attention to the politics of the bill. They listened to Republican and Farm Bureau concerns, and while never quite winning them over, they crafted a bill that passed and was signed by the governor. It took 20 years, but it got done.

Even more obscurely, the Legislature stepped up and banned mass catches of menhaden. What's a menhaden, you say? It's a stinky small fish that runs in huge schools along the Long Island coast and is followed by large schools of striped bass and bluefish, which depend on them for food. In turn, New York's important recreational and commercial fisheries depend on stripers and blues.

It turns out that factory fishing boats have invaded our waters and were mass-catching the menhaden and grinding them into fishmeal. Assemblyman Steve Engelbright, D-Setauket, and Sen. Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Beach, pushed and prodded and legislated a ban on these mass catches. And again the governor signed it into law.

For these four legislators, the process required patience, lobbying their own colleagues and leadership, dealing with contending interests and lobbyists, being knowledgeable enough to answer tough questions in party conferences and on the floor, and caring enough about the outcome to persist on relatively small but important issues.

These efforts are the daily fabric of life in the Legislature. It's what they actually do with their time. Your life might not be visibly impacted by either new law. But they are exemplars of what we want our democracy to accomplish.