The frustrations may outnumber the rewards, but Ocasio Willson ’13 says his job as a staffer in the New York State Assembly has taught him some valuable lessons about the machinery of government and politics.
Willson has served for the past 13 months as a committee assistant for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, researching and helping to write bills for legislators on three Assembly committees. The skills he developed as a political science major at Vassar have been “immediately transferable” to the tasks he performs for lawmakers in Albany, Willson says. “Basically, my job entails reading, analyzing and synthesizing a lot of information, which is exactly what I did as a student,” he says.
It’s Willson’s job to research and draft the legislation, organize hearings, consult with the chair of each committee on the wording of the bills and draft speeches for committee members who wish to speak about them.
Helping legislators write the bills is the rewarding part, Willson says. Watching what happens to the legislation as it moves through the committee process is often disheartening. “Some of the people I work with say it’s analogous to herding cats, because you’re balancing the interests and priorities of the legislators with the interests of the public and the special interest groups, and a lot gets lost in the process,” he says.
Willson says he’s particularly frustrated by the ongoing delays lawmakers are facing as they consider a bill that would provide the public with better access to information held by local, county, and state government agencies. “Good government groups want transparency; corporate lobbyists and others want something else,” he says. “I was one of the guys who set up roundtable discussions and hearings for all the stakeholders, but the bill got muddled up in the committee process and the result was we had no bill at all. It’s probably a couple of sessions away from passing.”
Which is not to say there aren’t some small victories. Willson was particularly gratified when the Government Operations Committee successfully shepherded a bill to the Assembly floor that required state agencies to purchase some of their goods and services from companies owned or partly owned by disabled veterans. The bill passed by a wide margin.
“That was rewarding, and I’ve enjoyed the experience of meeting a wide spectrum of people and personalities and learning what motivates them,” Willson says. “But it’s hard not to become cynical about government because you don’t see many solutions to problems. A lot of it is performance art.”
Now that the state budget has passed, the pace of Willson’s job has slowed considerably. “Back in February, March and April, if you worked 12 hours, that was a good day,” he says.
Legislative staffers are given compensatory time off to offset those long days and weeks. Willson used the time to acquire his real estate license, and he’s now working part-time as a salesman for a broker in the Albany area. “I want to be involved in the development of the Capitol region, and I’m beginning to realize that change through economic means might be easier than change through the political process,” he says.
Wherever his career path leads, Willson says, he’s certain the time he’s spending in state government will be helpful. “The social skills I’ve developed working in the Assembly will definitely be beneficial, whatever I do next,” he says.--Larry Hertz