Assemblyman-elect Phil Steck began a learning process that his predecessor said could take the next two years.
The Colonie Democrat will be representing Colonie, Niskayuna and part of Schenectady in the next legislative session, after defeating Republican Jennifer Whalen and taking over a seat formerly held by the retiring Bob Reilly, D-Colonie.
On Thursday morning, Steck toured the Capitol building and the adjacent legislative offices, which ended with a briefing from Reilly.
“I never spent much time up here in any capacity,” said Steck, as he waited for an elevator with two soon-to-be staffers and an informal adviser, who had ties to the building and was giving the tour.
He marveled at the architecture of the building, which was built in the late 1800s. The group meandered past the fourth-floor windows overlooking the Senate chamber, went into the Assembly
viewing gallery, checked out conference rooms, searched for specific seats in the Assembly chamber and discovered the tunnel from the Capitol under State Street to the Legislative Office Building.
In the Assembly chamber, Steck tried to find his predecessor’s chair, marveled at all the different flags and questioned the comfort of the chairs.
“I’m not a person who likes to sit back and in the corner,” he said after finding Reilly’s seat. “I’d like to sit in the middle.”
As a freshman legislator, though, where he sits is one of the many choices that may not be up to him. This was a lesson made abundantly clear during an orientation last week, when it was announced that the Assembly Rules, Health, Education and Ways & Means committees would be off limits to any new members.
Steck, who said he will always be an advocate for his constituents, acknowledged that he won’t have a lot of legislative sway early on, as decisions are made by seniority. This was a message that Reilly hammered home during an hour-long sitdown in his fourth-floor, two-room office in the LOB.
“At the moment, though, you’re not going to be able to do to much,” he said. “I would spend some time focusing on learning.”
Learning the names of staffers, how parking works for staff, when to speak and where to sit in conference meetings, what community events to attend and what senators to befriend as potential co-sponsors of legislation are all tasks before Steck.
“I never did a good job of learning senators,” Reilly lamented.
In response, Steck said he has good ties to Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Delmar, and another potential senator, Democrat Cecilia Tkaczyk, who is still fighting for the 46th Senate District. Reilly immediately threw cold water on both names, saying they would be “useless” because they’re in the minority. He recommended Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, as his district partially overlaps with Steck’s district, the 110th Assembly District.
Steck said he heard Farley was a gentleman, but wondered about their ideological differences. Reilly described partisanship as incidental when it came to local issues.
They also talked about organizing a district office, which Steck plans to open somewhere in Schenectady County.
The pair commiserated with each other about how little money is available to staff that office and the legislative office.
There were some minor points Reilly warned Steck about, like their burden as local legislators to gavel into session occasionally during the summer when no one else was around.
Reilly also offered advice on dealing with his party leadership, stressing that Steck should always vote his conscience but should give his leaders a heads up when breaking ranks. He called the warning one of the golden rules.
A concern of Steck’s was fitting his legal practice into his legislative duties, which was why he was anxiously waiting for the legislative calendar to come out. As a state legislator, state courts will accommodate his schedule, but federal courts won’t be so courteous.
Reilly, whose schedule has been completely out of his hands for the last eight years, said the Assembly will eat up Steck’s time, with a lot of it being wasted. “The most frustrating part about it,” he said, “is that [conference meetings and Assembly sessions are] never on time.”
Steck said he hoped to formalize the informal Capital Region caucus that Reilly had been part of, which Reilly thought was a good idea. Steck said he and the three other newly elected Capital Region Democratic Assembly members were hoping to team up.
They also got into the holiday spirit for a bit, with Reilly recommending Steck spend some of his war chest on a card to constituents. He even tried to help him design his card, after learning that Steck has two dogs.
“Put them on your card,” Reilly said.
Steck takes office in January.