Should the New York State history community lobby in Albany and if so, for what? These questions occurred to me as I recently participated in two days of lobbying. The events were arranged by Parks & Trails New York and the Open Space Institute’s Alliance for New York Parks on Park Advocacy Day, and by the Tourism Industry Coalition for Tourism Action Day. The former is works essentially on behalf of NYS Office Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) while the latter consists of 23 organizations including 9 counties, 2 cities, New York and Syracuse, one region, the Finger Lakes, and hospitality organizations.
The Park Advocacy Day was very well organized. There was an initial briefing for participants and then we divided into our squads. My platoon was assigned the Taconic Region since I am from Westchester. NYSOPRHP uses the Hudson River as a dividing line so instead of a Hudson Valley region as other statewide organizations have, we were divided into the Palisades region to the west and the Taconic to the east. Our platoon leader was from Parks & Trails and she navigated the six of us through the legislative buildings. Since our platoon leader formerly had worked for Assembly Majority leader Sheldon Silver she constantly was greeted by people she knew.
We more or less kept to our schedule with only one cancellation in the nine meetings (including two at the same time). This was a large number of meetings. Sometimes we met with the senator or legislator, sometimes we met with the legislative chief of staff, and sometimes their staff. Meetings might only last 15 minutes so time management is essential. There was just enough time to convey your talking points, leave your materials, and try to make a personal connection (typically you are meeting the elected official of someone in the group, or with whom someone has had a previous collaboration), and then it is on to the next stop. We tended to repeat ourselves at each meeting, although it’s possible to learn from session to session to improve one’s pitch. I tended to focus on education and historic sites and leave recreation to others.
One of the concerns was the funding for repair and maintenance of the parks. As previously reported in The New York History Blog, the Senate budget rejected the $92.5 million in funding for state park and historic site repairs and upgrades which had been included in the Executive and Assembly budgets. This was the very item we were lobbying for. Robin Dropkin, Executive Director of Parks & Trails New York, and Erik Kulleseid, Executive Director of Open Space Institute’s Alliance for New York State Parks, both of whom were at the morning group meeting, issued a statement opposing that action. As The New York History Blog piece noted, no similar statement had been issued by any historian or advocate for history or historic preservation in New York State.
I have written about the weak, divided, impotent history community in previous posts and what I saw spending time in Albany really drove the point home. While the Parks advocacy groups were platoon-sized, there were regiments of teachers and librarians walking the floors as well as numerous other groups. Lobbying here is not the individual lobbyist wheeling and dealing in private meetings, dinners, and conferences in exotic locations, but the nuts and bolts where size matters, numbers count, and the silent voice is no match for the squeaky wheel. In this regard, the history community rates a zero and no wonder it gets crumbs at best.
The second lobbying experience for the Tourism Action Day was different. The welcoming meeting was longer this time, with a series of short presentations. The major difference was in the composition of the group. In the Parks group, we were from all over the state and were organized into squads with a prepared meeting schedule. The Tourism lobbyists tended to be professionally connected and were on their own to set up their schedules. I didn’t realize this until the last minute so I spent the Friday before the Tuesday lobbying contacting the offices of the people I had just visited a few days earlier. The serendipity of this unexpected juxtaposition enabled me schedule seven meetings at the last minute, plus I saw my own senator in passing.
My reasons for participating were two fold. First I had the opportunity to speak alone to people in seven different legislative offices about history and tourism (and education – the Common Core really is a touchy subject). Secondly, I had the chance to see Cristyne Nicholas, Chair of the New York State Tourism Advisory Council, and Ken Adams, President and CEO of Empire State Development responsible for ILoveNY which runs the Path through History Project. While I did not have an opportunity to speak with Nicholas who has been mentioned in previous posts, I did have the chance to speak with Adams about the Path through History. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.
Overall the two lobbying days were worth it as a learning experience for me, regardless of the particular outcome of any vote. I saw lobbying groups in action. I was on the floor of the Assembly. I developed connections with people in multiple legislative offices. I saw people who could make a difference for the history community like David Holder, Syracuse CVB, who gave an enthusiastic presentation and had an impressive handout. I saw how removed the tourist big shots are from the facts on the ground for the historic sites even though they are in charge of the Path through History. I also began to develop my own grass roots strategy to create a voice for the history community, which I’ll be writing about in the near future.