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Tom Precious: Memories from my Albany 'one-year plan' that turned into a career

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Precious

Tom Precious in his natural environment: the State Capitol.

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ALBANY – I have covered lots of big, important issues, and a ton of not-so-big. Done all the campaign stuff, witnessed imploding political careers and reputations, and encountered many serious and smart people doing work that directly affected the lives and wallets of millions of New Yorkers.

I came to Albany from Washington, D.C., in 1988 on the “one-year plan.” Marriage, kids, friends and the great opportunity to cover such an important state capital kept me here.

As I step back from daily journalism, here are some memories. These are not the big, history-making moments at the Capitol, but just some I take with me.

In no particular order:

Hidden spots

I was staking out then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in the early 1990s at the Capitol as his car arrived in a narrow space under the soaring set of stairs on the east side of the Capitol. If you wanted to grab a governor, it still is the best spot if you can time when they are entering the building (about six or seven minutes after their helicopter lands at a spot several miles away). The long stairway outside was already etched in my memory. Somewhere there is a photo of me, when I was about 9, on my first trip to Albany, standing on those steps the day my parents and I traveled with my oldest brother to an Army office to sign some papers before being sent to war in Vietnam.

“You’ve been a real (expletive) to me, but come on," Cuomo said as I approached him. He then took me on a tour that included the “secret” elevator between the first and second floors of the Capitol, with a stop in a deeply hidden room where, he told me, Franklin Roosevelt, as governor and with polio, would receive massages. I credit Mario Cuomo – after watching him make mincemeat of some colleagues – with teaching me how to ask a question in ways that 1) didn’t backfire on me and 2) gave less wiggle room for politicians to avoid.

Pataki v. Cuomo

This was election night in 1994, after filing a final story around midnight that Cuomo lost his bid for a fourth term. I walked from my hotel to the nearby Hilton in midtown Manhattan, already exhausted after flying around the state with George Pataki in the final days of his campaign – including a remarkable brawl between Cuomo and Pataki supporters outside the governor’s mansion in Albany. I tapped the penthouse button on the elevator, and, upon emerging, a full but surprisingly small celebration was underway. The newly elected governor’s at-the-time tiny State Police detail didn’t stop me. So, I entered to see if I could grab any color for a story the next day. Pataki came up to me, pounded me – hard – on my shoulders and said, repeatedly, “You didn’t think I could beat him. You didn’t think I could beat him.” I actually never thought that. Many of us believed Pataki and his rag-tag team had perfectly figured out a path to victory against Cuomo.

Life can be humbling

One day, I happened to be hanging outside Pataki’s office just checking who was going in and out. A Syracuse-area school group came by on a tour. Pataki, always gracious, walked up to them, greeted them and gave them some great insights about the Capitol. He finished his chat after a few minutes. The teacher turned to him and asked: “And you are?” He responded: “Governor George Pataki.” It was funny to witness, but also provided multiple lessons for me, and perhaps, Pataki.

Humbling moments, Part II

In 2007, Eliot Spitzer went to an Albany Head Start program to try to show his soft and cozy side after quickly earning a reputation at the Capitol for having anything but those characteristics. He read the youngsters “If You Give a Pig a Pancake.” He told the kids they could call him Eliot. “I want to call you clown," one boy said. A second kid agreed with the title. And another. Spitzer, a father and former prosecutor, sought some control of the situation. “All right. Do you like clowns?” he said to them. In response, a fourth kid said: “I want to call you Chuck E. Cheese.”

Pork, pork and more pork

I once spent months researching how the late then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (RIP), an Albany area Republican, used his influence to pump billions into the counties in and around his district. The Buffalo News ran a multiday series about the Bruno largess for the Albany area and how it represented pork barrel politics at its worst and vividly illustrated the power of a legislative leader’s influence on his community at the cost to other regions. On the final day of the series, I went to a speech Bruno gave to a local business group at an Albany hotel. In his speech, he singled me out as I stood in the back of the room, and noted, proudly, that even The Buffalo News recognized all the money he had provided for his Albany-area communities. I recall him winking at me as he left the hotel.

An aviation tragedy

In the aftermath of the Flight 3407 airline crash in 2009 in Clarence, a devastating moment for so many people, my paper had extensive follow-up stories by reporters who I already knew to be among the most committed and talented journalists in any newsroom anywhere. My interest was on commercial aviation training, given what appeared to be, long before the investigation was complete, a problem with how the pilots handled the plane. I spent months talking to pilots, crash investigators, air traffic controllers, pilot instructors, airline sources and others. Among the many themes I kept hearing: the eroding “stick and rudder” skills of pilots. I talked to so many pilots, including former Navy aviators, who kept mentioning training shortcomings, and how too much reliance was placed on automatic pilot software by some pilots.

Stick and rudder. What did that mean? I found an aerobatic pilot who took me up in his Citabria plane. After takeoff from the grass runway in his backyard, we rolled, stalled, hit near zero G force, did a touch-and-go outside Woodstock on a narrow grass runway with trees seemingly within touch as we landed on what was aptly called the “Strip-in-the-Woods.” We then headed above the Catskills, and he banked left and right to follow the curves of the mountains as we descended through a dizzying stretch. In that hour, I came to appreciate stick and rudder skills. The series, which I wrote with my partner, Jerry Zremski, would go on to help change the nation’s commercial pilot training rules.

Off-script

I don’t recall the exact school, but it was a high school from one of the suburban Buffalo districts. Students were touring the Capitol and one of their teachers asked if I would speak to the students about how Albany works, how a bill becomes law and such civics lessons.

Perhaps my opening line was a bit of a hammer, and, OK, rather insensitive in retrospect. “Forget what you’ve been told in your high school classes," I said as I then went into a talk – it was NOT a rant – about how Albany really works, the role of money in politics and government, corruption. My memory is the teachers thanking me in the end, but not too wholeheartedly. It's probably just a coincidence that no other visiting high schools over the years asked me to provide my keen insights to their students.

A hockey fan

In 2012, The Buffalo News had an idea: I would record audio interviews of people and it would be put on the paper’s website. One of those I asked was then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. I didn’t want to talk politics and government, but hockey. He was an avid New York Rangers fan, a season ticket holder. I grew up a Rangers fan and he thought I followed the team far more than I actually did. Besides, they had already finally won the Stanley Cup in my lifetime by then.

Not one to be overly revealing or to ever really show emotion, Silver opened up in talking about hockey strategy, gave tips for how to play against certain teams, his chats over the years with Wayne Gretzky, and on and on. He talked of becoming a different person at hockey games. "Yes, I’m cheering … Yes, I wear my Rangers hat, except when I’m in Buffalo at Rangers/Sabres games, obviously," he said of his annual trips to Buffalo to see the two teams play mixed in, conveniently, with a fundraiser for himself.

In 2018, I was covering yet another corruption trial, this time in a Manhattan federal court featuring Joe Percoco, the longtime friend and adviser of Andrew Cuomo, and others. After one of the days’ proceedings, the court cleared. Minutes later, Silver went in. He was to appear before the same judge in advance of a retrial in his own separate corruption case, which would eventually send him to prison.

I popped back into the courtroom. His lawyers were huddled off to the side with prosecutors as they awaited the judge’s entry. By himself standing at a table was Silver, who I had not seen or talked to in years. His first words when he saw me: “So, you going to the Rangers game tonight at the Garden?"

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