ADVOCACY IN THE LITERALLY VIRAL AGE
A legendary Philadelphia mover and shaker named Obra S. Kernodle III once said: “A good lobbyist is someone who can take ‘em to the bathroom even if they don’t have to pee.”
Even someone with Obra’s skills might be tested these days in Albany. As a friend said Wednesday, “it’s tough to lobby when you can’t get in the building.”
While the world around us has been turned upside down, the coronavirus pandemic has turned the State Capitol’s March madness into March mildness.
Staircase rallies, button-holing lawmakers and staff, ducking into offices to check on bills or deliver a message – all cancelled as the Capitol and Legislative Office Building remain closed to visitors, including lobbyists and activists. It’s hard to create good theater when the stage is closed.
Also out for the moment is the strategic stroll through the LCA Room to see what reporters are hearing or working on. At the same time, reporters are cut off from the usual access to lobbyists, advocates and PR people who clog the halls and often have insights and intel to share, plus good quotes.
Sure, you can always pick up the phone. But better Clorox wipe it first.
The Capitol is a big building that spews energy when raucous and filled. The other side of the coin is: when it’s empty and quiet, it … is … really … quiet.
Even still, the Governor and Legislature and their staffs are working on a budget and coronavirus relief legislation. But they’re doing so without the usual racket in the hallways and face-to-face meetings.
“This could be Albany’s first `three people in a Zoom’ budget,” tweeted the Empire Center’s Bill Hammond.
And it remains to be seen if an elbow bump or “foot shake” agreement carries the same weight as a handshake deal.
Albany often looks to “what did we do last time?” Well, this is the first time. Absent a reference point, policymakers and those who want to influence them are feeling their way through it – a prospect made more challenging by:
1. The incredible havoc and governmental and societal disruption brought by the coronavirus;
2. A state budget that had a serious deficit (can you say Medicaid?) before the economic impact of the virus began to play even more havoc with it;
3. A slew of high-profile non-budget budget issues like bail and marijuana;
4. Elections in all 213 legislative seats and, for a large number of seats, a scheduled June primary that essentially decides the ultimate winners;
5. The fact that the fiscal picture, like roadkill, won’t look prettier anytime soon.
And yet, there are some things on which you can make book. New York is a strong executive budget state, as spelled out in the Constitution, affirmed by the courts, implemented in increasing intensity by the last several governors and made into an art by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Speaking of the Governor, he clearly is in his element during this coronavirus crisis. The cable news networks – including Fox – have carried live the Governor’s daily briefings every day this week. That hasn’t happened since 9/11.
While laser focused on virus response, he and his team are more than capable of finalizing a spending plan that keeps the state running.
And yet no budget can get passed without agreement from Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and their Democratic conferences. That means they will have to reach three-way agreements on the fiscal and policy decisions included in the budget. Cuomo is a deft wielder of both carrots and sticks in regular times and his abilities are only intensified now.
Given the coronavirus’s cascading impact on New York’s economy and state and local budgets – not to mention how we’re living – the Legislature for sure will be back. If not soon, then soon enough. At that point, lobbyists and advocates and their PR folks will be back in the Capitol. The madness of the hallways and the craziness of Planet Albany will return. And at least for us, that will feel somehow comforting.
Steve and Bob are Albany veterans and long-time friends who run separate communications consultancies – Greenberg Public Relations for Steve and Stanhope Partners for Bob.