On the job: Tkaczyk settles in to Senate role


Recorder News Staff

It's just before noon on a particularly dreary February morning. Outside the New York State Capitol building, protesters numbering in the thousands are converging upon Empire State Plaza in a demonstration of opposition to the state's newly enacted gun control laws.

Inside the state Senate chambers, the atmosphere is much more subdued.

A handful of senators have remained, some seated, others milling about, to hear out the last few resolutions that comprise the remainder of the week's session schedule.

Among them is freshman Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, serving the state's vast 46th Senate District, which stretches from St. Johnsville to Kingston.

Thanks to an election that required a prolonged court battle and multiple recounts before a winner could officially be named, Tkaczyk is only five weeks into her first term.

She wasn't officially sworn in until Jan. 23, three weeks behind her fellow legislators.

Though her foot is still barely through the Senate door, she has seemingly not missed a step, and her schedule on a daily basis reflects the vigor with which she's thrown herself into the new role.

Nearly each and every minute of Tkaczyk's day has a dedicated, though widely varied, purpose, beginning at 9 a.m., when she arrives in Albany after having spent her morning tending to the 17 sheep at home on her Duanesburg farm and ensuring that her 13-year-old son has made it safely to school.

Following Thursday's session, Tkaczyk made her way from the Senate floor, to Room 311 of the Legislative Office Building, her newly equipped offices.

There she is met by two of the protesters from the plaza, two of a steady stream who have made their way to her office that morning seeking to ensure their state senator knew exactly how they felt about the controversial new law.

Though an afternoon full of meetings looms ahead of her, Tkaczyk welcomes the impromptu visit as an opportunity to listen to and understand their concerns.

That, she later says, is the most important part of her job.

"Even if they don't agree with me, I'm going to talk with them," she said.

Tkaczyk tells the men that she supports the law, mainly for its inclusion of universal background checks, but that she agrees it is not without its flaws.

Chief among them, she believes, is the haste with which it was enacted, which is why one of the first bills she has attached her name to, the so-called "Vampire Act," would restrict voting on pieces of legislation to between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

"I appreciate you stopping by," Tkaczyk says, as the men prepare to leave.

She means it.

There's barely time for a quick bite to eat, little more than the remainder of yesterday's lunch, before it's time for her next meeting.

Between those of the Senate committees she serves on, those with lobbyists from throughout the state seeking her support and those with her constituents, Tkaczyk will spend the much of the average day lending her ear to various causes.

Next up: The Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York.

The group is there to ask Tkaczyk to lend her support for a $100,000 funding request for a marketing and promotional campaign.

Having grown up on a dairy farm, Tkaczyk is proud of her agricultural roots and is a vocal supporter of the state's farming industry.

She tells the group that she did not realize Christmas Tree farms in the state were being threatened.

She'll add that to the growing list of topics she intends to research and, if need be, address.

Following quick meetings with her staff regarding various scheduling details, Tkaczyk is listening, once again, to why she should support a particular cause or piece of legislation.

In addition to the Christmas tree farmers, Tkaczyk met that afternoon with a lobbyists for the Federation of Mental Health Services and the AFL-CIO, as well as with the executive director of the New York State Thruway Authority.

"I like having so many diverse groups coming in because you get more of the whole picture," she says.

In between, she stops again, this time to meet with two spontaneous visitors who wanted to speak with her regarding the importance of gun control.

Again, she stops and listens.

"She sees it as part of her job," said Jim Plastiras, Tkaczyk's director of communications.

The sheer volume of people seeking her attention on a daily basis, she says, has been among the most surprising aspects of the job thus far.

"It's so hard to see everybody that wants to meet with you," she said. "There's just not enough hours in the day."

In some of the meetings, she has been specifically sought out during the all-important budget season based on her service on various committees.

In her first term, Tkaczyk is serving on the Agriculture, Children and Families, Education, Elections, Environmental Conservation, and Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committees.

Other meetings, she said, she specifically requests.

Like that with Tim Madison, the head of the Thruway Authority.

The Thruway, she said, goes through a large portion of her district. She thought it important that she understand the issues that particular agency is facing.

"My first job is to understand the problem," she says of the various meetings she has throughout the day.

"They tell you the most important thing they want you to remember," she added. "I like information. It helps me understand the problem."

To that end, Tkaczyk also attends the majority of the budget hearings currently taking place at the capital, though not required, or even expected, to do so.

"I've been going to as many budget hearings as I can," she said. "That's been very interesting."

Her nights are often filled with the piles of paperwork and information, both left for her by constituents and lobbyists, as well documents compiled for her by her staff regarding the various legislation she will be addressing.

"I'm constantly reading," Tkaczyk said.

Tkaczyk credits her years of serving as a legislative analyst with having given her the skills required to absorb the extraordinary amount of information she is presented with on a daily basis and apply it appropriately.

Just understanding the issues, she notes, is only the first step. It's just as important, she said, that she understands the implications.

"I'll share proposed legislation with groups and say: 'How does this impact you?'" Tkaczyk said.

"You really have to understand the implications of legislation before you put your name on it," said Tkaczyk Legislative Director Graham Ennis.

Ennis' job, along with that of Legislative Liaison Domenic Donatto, is to research all of the legislation slated to be voted and, when necessary, draft the legislation Tkaczyk herself plans to propose.

Plastiras, Ennis and Donatto, along with Director of Constituent Services Valeria White and Chief of Staff Joe Glazer, comprise Tkaczyk's dedicated staff, who, until just three weeks ago, were running a New York state Senate office without so much as a single computer.

It took a while to fully equip the office, they explained.

They're still waiting for their business cards.

By 4 p.m. on Thursday, the meeting portion of Tkaczyk's day had come to an end, a rarity, said Ennis.

"This is a quiet day," he explained.

That's not to say the senator's day was over, however. She was due in Latham by 6:30 p.m. for a meeting of the Capital District School Boards Association.

With education firmly atop her priorities list, Tkaczyk said she hopes to spend much of her first term fighting what she, and many others, believe is an extraordinarily inadequate state school funding formula that unfairly puts small rural districts at a disadvantage.

"She's going to fight for more funding for the schools that need it most," Plastiras explained.

Tkaczyk counts 24 school districts within the district she represents. She plans to attend at least one board of education meeting in each and every one.

"I think it has to happen," she said of the need to rescind the controversial gap elimination adjustment, which is widely blamed for the inadequacies in the school funding formula. "We need to keep up the pressure on it.

"It does not make sense to me that we're not investing in education," she continued. "I'm going to keep bringing this up and keep talking about it."

"So integral to having strong upstate communities is having a strong public school system," she added.

Before the CAPSBA meeting, however, Tkaczyk was going to seize the rare opportunity to stop home and have dinner with her family.

The day, the staff explained, was typical in terms of the volume of material addressed. In the office of a New York state senator, however, there's no such thing as typical.

"There are very few average days," said Plastiras.

Days is somewhat of an inaccurate term to use in relation to the schedule Tkaczyk is maintaining.

Nearly every minute of every day, night and weekend is accounted for, her staff explained.

"There's always something on her schedule that's going on and to her credit she likes to do as much as she can," Plastiras said.

"The days never end," Tkaczyk had explained earlier that afternoon.

Depending on how long Thursday night's meeting will last, Tkaczyk will likely not be home until long past the bedtime of the farmer who rose in the wee morning hours to take care of her sheep.

But she expected to be up bright and early Friday morning. She was invited to an event in New Paltz beginning at 8:30 a.m.

Tkaczyk, over course, planned to be there.

"I always say: 'Thank God she was a farmer,'" said Ennis.