I'll never forget the day. A cold, snowy wind blasted through Ithaca that morning. Six-year-old Cedar and twelve-year-old Tahlya were at school and I sat in front of my computer and worked on editing some posts for my blog. In between that and cleaning the house, I listened to the Stephanie Miller Show on AM radio. As the morning went on, she began to speak of some breaking news coming out of Connecticut. It was unclear, but it seemed there had been another school shooting. My stomach clenched at the thought of it.
The details began to come clear and it only got worse. And worse. Students, five- and six-year-old children, practically babies, were murdered in their first-grade classrooms, by a man with a gun and a vendetta. My head reeled as I listened to the horrific details, one by one, dribbling out of the radio speakers. It was all I could do to prevent myself from jumping in the car and driving across town to my son's classroom and finding him and never letting go.
A few hours later, Cedar arrived home on his school bus. Little brown-head of innocence bobbing through the rows of seats, small voice thanking the driver, short legs climbing those big steps down to greet me once more. His face lit up when he saw me. I started to cry.
There was nothing fair about that day. My child was safe, my life would go on, but so many lives were shattered.
Since then, there have been dozens more school shootings, and countless incidents of gun violence in America. With one kid now in middle school, and another in college, it's hard to know how to handle this kind of thing. Will my life be irrevocably changed some day, when someone with access to a gun decides to enter one of their schools? I would be destroyed. I don't know how anyone could recover from that.
A few weeks ago, the Tompkins County Sheriff's Department hosted a gun buyback event. The purpose was to get unwanted guns out of people's homes and possession. People brought in guns that had been willed to them, guns that sat in their attics and basements unlocked, guns that they simple didn't want or know what to do with.
Legislator Anna Kelles was instrumental in working with Tompkins County Sheriff Ken Lansing and the Sheriff's department in organizing the event. The Tompkins County DA offered funding to pay for their guns. And a few of us Legislators showed up on the day with coffee, snacks, and cheery attitudes. Eager to support the good work.
The day-long event brought in about 45 guns, all of which will be destroyed.
One small step.
The Monday after the buyback, I attended the Health and Human Services Committee meeting, of which I am a member. The topic for the meeting was suicide, and we heard from several organizations who are working on a Zero Suicide model of mental health care. One fact that was offered, though not central to the conversation, was that about 2/3 of suicides are by guns. That's about 58 people per day. A horrifying, sobering number.
School shootings. Suicide. This says nothing of the countless other ways that guns are used to harm, torture, and kill people. How many people have to die from this epidemic before we as a society reevaluate what we are doing and make a change? When will we push back hard enough on the NRA and the gun lobby in Washington? When will children be valued more than guns and money?
I'm ready for that change. Now. In my book, guns kill people. Period. There should be serious restrictions on gun ownership. And assault rifles and weapons should be banned.
A gun buyback isn't the only answer. It was one thing that we could do. It's 45 guns that will never kill a child, never be turned on a loved one or on the hand that holds it, never be used in a fit of rage. There are many more guns out there, being used right now to hurt someone.
We can talk about rights, about the Second Amendment, about America's long history. We should. But for now, I want to talk about those six-year-old children who were murdered in their Newtown school on that dark, cold day. I want to talk about the loss their parents have suffered. I want to talk about the fact that I live every day grateful that my family has not faced gun violence, and in fear that someday it might all come crashing down. I want to talk about the fact that those babies would be about twelve years old now and that I'll never forget it because my son will always be the age that those beautiful children never will.
The question I hear most often these days is, How's it going?
When I run into old friends from Cedar's elementary school, or cross paths with constituents I haven't seen in a few months, or sit down with a department head to learn about their agency, it's the inevitable question: How's the new job going?
People are curious. Hell, I've been curious myself as to how this would go. As you know, I'm just a regular person who decided it was time to serve my community, and I've never been friends with or worked much at all with any elected officials. My previous interactions with elected officials include: I emailed with Barbara Lifton in 2017 regarding the Women's March; I got to know Will Burbank and Martha Robertson while I was campaigning last year; and I had the opportunity to shake Bill Clinton's hand once, back when he was President, but I refused because I was so mad at him for cheating on his wife.
So yeah, pretty much zero elected official interaction. So if someone I knew ran for office and won, my first question would definitely be, How's it going?
What I think people mean to ask is: What's it like? Are politicians as shady and shifty as the media portrays them? Is all the work worth the small paycheck? I saw you in the news, wasn't that cool? But mainly, I think they mean: How the hell are you coping with such a thankless and controversial job?
Part of the answer to the question is in my daily activities. On one Monday in April I went to the Department of Health for the Health Planning Council meeting, where I learned about the success of the HIV prevention drug. Then I met with Will to catch up and ask for a little advice. Then I attended the Health and Human Services committee meeting, where I am a member, and we discussed the County's medical examiner program and the Human Services Coalition's 211 program.
The next day, I met with one of the County's planners to look at maps and discuss the County forest land we own in Newfield. Then I met with one of the guys from IT to get oriented to my brand new County-issued laptop. Later in the day, I joined a group of concerned neighbors at one of my constituents' homes to discuss issues in their neighborhood.
In between all that, I've been reading emails and articles about the airport expansion, plastic bag bans, Safe Injection Facilities, and agendas for upcoming meetings of the Library Board, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and the Environmental Management Council.
When I look at this list, I feel like I have the best job in the world. Not one aspect of it was repetitive, mundane, or boring. And I'm a person who doesn't take kindly to mundanity.
As for the pay, I'm not in this for the money. I receive about $1200 a month, after taxes and health insurance costs have been taken out. The past few months I've had to keep track of my hours to show the NYS retirement system my average work amount, which has been about 40 hours per week. So, you can do the math there.
Politicians are a shady lot. It's a pretty standard stereotype. Just look at Albany or Washington. Here in Tompkins County, so far, I believe things are different.
I haven't become friends with all the other Legislators (though a couple, I have). I don't hold the same values as they all do. I don't vote one way or another because someone told me to or tried to coerce me.
Each of our votes counts the same. One time. We can debate, argue, or try to beat each other down with facts and figures from our side. TC Legislators are an opinionated, loud, passionate bunch. Most of us can easily get swept up in emotion of a topic. But I don't see corruption, coercion, underhanded dealings. Instead, what I see are a group of people trying to do their best for the people they represent. Their way of thinking might be different from mine, but what matters is that at the end of the day, I am trying to be my best self, and I believe they are doing the same.
So, you ask, How's it going?
My answer is that it is intense. It's busy--I have meetings every day, one day I had six. It's overwhelming--there are hundreds of pages of reports, articles, studies, and other documents to read every week. It's emotional--when I'm passionate about something, I'm passionately fighting for it, and that takes a toll. It's a huge learning curve--I knew nothing about Robert's Rules, how most County departments are run, and the hardest one for me, speaking in public (hence the reason I am a writer).
But it is also fun--some of us make jokes and laugh at any and every opportunity. It's entertaining--I've seen some great presentations, been on a dozen awesome facilities tours, and many of my advisory board assignments offer cake, cookies, or dinner each time! It's never, ever dull--there have been rousing debates over hot topics, a chance to meet Chuck Schumer, and an insightful LGBTQ+ sensitivity in the workplace training.
It's worth it. I'm contributing. I'm making choices for my community. I'm seeing, from the inside, the power that Democracy holds, and the responsibility that comes with having a seat at the table. All that adds up to make me think that it's going pretty damn well.
One of the things we new Legislators are working on during these first months on the job is getting to know the 30+ County departments and the people who run them. Four months in, we have almost completed this task, which is enabling us to understand more about what each department faces. A few months back, we sat down with Barb Eckstrom, Director of Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management Center (TCRMMC). But today, Leo Riley, Assistant Director, and Nancy W., Waste Reduction and Recycling Specialist, led us on a tour of the facility. It was great to get up close and personal with Tompkins County's Recycling and Solid Waste Center (RSWC), where about 13,000 visitors stop by each year to drop their waste.
Of particular interest to me is the food waste program. You may remember that back in April, the TC Legislature voted to support Governor Cuomo's proposed Legislation, and urge the State Legislature to enact a statewide ban on food scraps entering the waste stream. It's unsure what the outcome will be at the state level, but if the state can't get it together, I support a local ban. This means that large producers of food waste--restaurants, grocery stores, colleges, the hospital, etc.-- would be required by law to keep food waste out of the trash.
Think about that can of beans you bought last week to make tacos. Think about all the water, fossil fuels, and human energy that went into growing, harvesting, shipping, and packaging them, then shipping them again. Then you spent your hard-earned money at the grocery store for those beans, drove them home, ate a few tacos, and the rest is growing a smelly green fuzz in the back of the fridge. If those fuzzy beans go into a plastic bag and out to the curb and get shipped to a landfill (using more fossil fuels), they will produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas much more potent that carbon dioxide. Now image your one can of beans multiplied by hundreds, by thousands, and all the energy expended to deal with such vast quantities of green fuzz. Food waste is exactly that, wasteful. We could be saving money, time, and so much energy if that food waste is simple taken out of the stream altogether.
Cayuga Compost in Trumansburg deals with large amounts of food waste, with Tompkins County's help. Residents can bring food waste to the Recycling Center, or there are regular food drop locations all over the county every month. The collected scraps are hauled to Cayuga Compost to be recycled into food for the soil! A much better outcome than trapped in a landfill for all of eternity.
Once things enter the landfill, they are there forever. Period.
The mission of the TCRMM is to prevent as many things as possible from going to the landfill to begin with. And Tompkins County is ahead of the curve here. Our Center accepts far more than I ever knew. Here are a small few of the items you can recycle:
-Button and rechargeable batteries, regular AA and AAA batteries go in the landfill stream
-Used cooking oils and fats, which is purchased by Buffalo Biodiesel
-Plastic films, such as bread and veggie grocery bags
-Electronics, from blenders to cell phones to fax machines
-Propane tanks, large ones for your grill or small ones you use for camping
Check out the full list here.
The facility is pretty damn cool. The hopper, the conveyor belts, the sorting machines, the giant spools of wire to tie bales together, the massive machines driving all over the place. We humans are so incredibly ingenious and inventive. We have used our smarts to build all this. Surely was can use those same smarts to create ways to stop the excess waste we produce and protect this one and only planet we have to live on.
Clearly, I could ramble on about garbage for some time. I may have missed my true calling. I am happy to say that as a member of Tompkins County's Environmental Management Council, I am a part of the newly formed subcommittee on waste reduction, aka Zero Waste. We plan to tackle the local plastic bag ban. Beyond that we're looking at food waste and microplastics.
One of my goals in my time on the Legislature is to work on encouraging our residents bring less eventual garbage items into their homes, put less in the landfill stream, and put more into reuse and recycle piles. But I'm only scratching the surface. It's folks like Leo, Nancy, Barb, and all the others who work at TCRMMC who are real leaders in the field, getting their hands dirty to make change in our County. I'm learning from them. My hope is that my support on the policy side of things can be of some help along their way.
After four months on the job, I've finally gotten a few moments to change my website from a campaign site to a Legislator site. It's been an intense and busy winter and I haven't had much chance to reflect on what I've been doing. The steep learning curve has kept me running fast.
This story of regular-mom/citizen-runs-for-office-and-wins is not something that happens to me (or most people) everyday and I want to remember this experience. As a writer, I figured what better way to do that than keep a blog. Maybe it will help people understand what the job is all about. Maybe it will be a way for me to connect with constituents. Maybe it will help me find more insight. Here's hoping it'll be at least slightly entertaining for all involved.
The four other new Legislators and I have been spending a lot of time getting to know the County. That means meeting with every Department and Agency head, reading at least as many documents as I read in Grad school, and visiting facilities and touring buildings that are integral to County functioning. As I said, it's been busy, but I have to say that it has also been great fun. Deb Dawson, Shawna Black, Anne Koreman, and Henry Granison have made this hard work worth all the effort. We have gotten to know and appreciate each other well. I think I'm very lucky to have joined the Legislature with such a knowledgeable, active, involved, dedicated crew. I'm so grateful for them.
Here are a few highlights from the past four months...