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Robert McCarthy: The way of the Capitol seldom changes

ALBANY – It’s been more than two years since the Politics Column was last dispatched to the State Capitol to chronicle the proceedings of New York State government.

Could it have proven too long an absence, especially when the yellowed electronic card granting access to the Capitol started beeping against the monitor, and attracting the attention of a very serious-looking trooper?

It had expired. Had everything else changed too?

But there is something about H.H. Richardson’s architectural masterpiece that exudes continuity – good or bad, depending on your point of view. The old building has been shined up in recent years. Its floors gleam and its hallways are lined with really beautiful works of art.

And why not? New York’s history and masterpieces should be displayed in such a fitting setting as the Capitol.

But continuity takes over climbing the stairs to the venerable press room maintained by the equally venerable Legislative Correspondents Association, founded in 1900. It’s old. It’s cluttered. It’s something out of a 1930s movie. And it’s wonderful.

Posters from old LCA spoof shows line the walls. So do team photos of past LCA reporters, including one from 1960 featuring Doug Turner of The Buffalo News, when he toiled for the Courier-Express.

Nobody would dare drive a nail into the woodwork – ancient cigar smoke might escape. And the press room still lists The Buffalo Evening News. That’s kind of cool, and we won’t mention to anyone the name was changed almost 35 years ago.

Settling in to chronicle the last days of the 2017 session, the constants emerge. While topics and issues change, the ways of the Capitol don’t. Democrat vs. Republican. Upstate vs. downstate. Legislative vs. executive.

The main controversy driving deliberations deep into the night on Wednesday remained mayoral control of New York City schools. The topic has been discussed in Buffalo too, but New York City has made it central to the administration of its vast system in recent years.

In the ways of Albany, however, things get linked together. Mayoral control doesn’t mean much around Mayville, but Chautauqua County’s ability to extend its sales tax does. Bill de Blasio’s role in the five boroughs fails to resonate in Buffalo, but expanding opportunities for charter schools might.

Votes in the Senate and Assembly matter too. That’s how things get tied up. That’s how horse trading takes place and the work of the state gets done.

During the Column’s last visit, Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his State of the State message to open the session. He was joined on the dais by Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. One day later, Silver loomed in then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s sights. Skelos was soon to follow.
Now the leaders have new names – Carl Heastie in the Assembly and John Flanagan in the Senate, though Jeff Klein continues as Independent Democratic Caucus leader.

It’s “four men in a room” these days, but nothing really changes. They control the legislation and policies that result from six long months of session. During the end-of-session deliberations throughout the week, the four men huddled in Cuomo’s second-floor office decided what would become law and what would not. It’s been the way of the Capitol since anyone can remember. And few see it changing in any significant way in the future.

Back in the spring of 1970, the principal of Bishop Gibbons High School in Schenectady grabbed a skinny sophomore out of class one day and suggested he might like to go along on a lobbying trip to the Capitol. Students from around the state that day would encourage the Legislature to provide aid for parochial schools, and when Brother Thomas P. Draney of the Christian Brothers of Ireland suggested you might like to accept his invitation, you did.

Nothing much has changed since that first trip to the Capitol, either. But a trip to the stately old building remains as important – and exciting – as it did that day 47 years ago.

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