THE AGONY AND THE EXHAUSTION: the Price of Political Change?

By Don C. Reed

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, by Irving Wallace, describes the creative process of Michaelangelo, as he painted the Sistine Chapel. Put a small change in the last word, making it “exhaustion”, and you have a pretty good description of politics as well.

Tuesday, June 26th. Everybody in the California Capitol was running on fumes, or so it seemed,   in the halls outside Conference Room 4203.

Inside that room, nine people would decide the fate HB 1657, a way to fund the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury research Act, named after my paralyzed son.  If that bill (AB 1657) became law, it would impose a $1 add-on penalty to traffic tickets, raising approximately  $3 million a year for the fight against paralysis.

Our bill had just passed the Assembly already.  We now needed this committee, (Transportation and Housing), then Appropriations, then the full body of the Senate—and if the Governor signed it, the research would go forward—and my son would have a chance to walk again.

Right now, Roman was working his cell phone furiously, asking friends for one more phone call, one more e-mail to the members of the committee, especially Mark DeSaulnier, the Chairman.

I was running up and down the stairs between the floors of the Sacramento Capitol building—no time to wait for elevators—taking last minute messages to the offices of the committee members.

We needed five ”aye” votes. Five out of nine.

At last, there were no more errands to run; no way to influence the situation, but only just to sit and wait for our turn at the witness stand.

I took an aisle seat in the conference room, waiting for Roman to pull in beside me.

At three o’clock, Assemblyman Wieckowski approached the podium, adjusted the mike.

“Hi,Don!” whispered a voice behind me.  It was Angela Gilliard of the University of California, here in support!

I heard the click and hummm of a power chair.  As we three headed for the witness area, I passed Roman a copy of the speech I had written for him.

Roman placed the speech on the table in front of him, looked at it for a moment—and then shoved it away.

“I don’t need to read it—I live it,” he said. Which was effective, I supposed, except that I now had to squeeze some of his planned remarks into my already crowded three minute speaking time…But Roman is a force of nature, and knows what he is doing.

He covered the emotional aspects.  I listed the nuts-and-bolts. Angela Gilliard explained how every dollar California spent had attracted four dollars from the federal government, giving us an actual profit, quadruple the bang for the buck. Fourteen million over ten years had brought in sixty-four million from the National Institutes of Health and other sources, new money for the state…

The Chair thanked us for our testimony—but there were not enough members present for the vote.

So…we waited some more.

I sat there twitching from too much coffee, planning what to say if we lost.

The program was great—no one disagreed.  Well, except maybe the California Catholic Conference, which called part of our research “immoral”.  We had funded embryonic stem cell research (4 projects out of 129) early on.  I was proud of the research and most Catholic families (like my own) supported it.

Our original $1.5 million a year had come from the general fund: paid for by the California taxpayer. But now, thanks to the Republican no-new-taxes pledge, there was not enough money in the budget.

Why was it so hard for California to raise taxes on the rich?  People called Democrats the “tax-and-spend” party.  I never understood why this was an insult.  Of course we should tax and of course we should spend, fighting  problems too big for families on their own–what was wrong with that?  Why do rich people object to taxes they can so easily afford? They became rich off our state and nation—why would they not want to help—were they not patriotic?

We had been forced to come up with alternative funding.

Traffic ticket add-ons were a natural: unsafe driving may cause car crash, a major source of spinal cord injury.

Of course, we did not enjoy slapping an extra dollar onto already expensive traffic tickets.  But what choice did we have?

Should we sit by and do nothing while the program died?

I help my son get out of bed in the morning. That is okay for now, but I am 66 years old.  What happens when my strength fails?

We just had to win. No fallback position. If we failed this year, we would come back again and again until they get tired of telling us no.

“They have a quorum”, and Jeff Barbosa, “enough members for a deciding vote.”

But was it enough to win?

One by one the votes were tallied. The “ayes” on our side: Mark DeSaulnier, Alan Lowenthal, Joe Smitian—and Wyland, Mark Wyland, a Republican– thank you Sir!

But it only tallied to four aye votes, 4-2. The no votes came from Ted Gaines and Tom Harman, both Republicans.

Democratic members Christine Kehoe and Fran Pavley did not vote, I don’t know why.  I felt a chill up my spine.  Senator Kehoe was the Chair of the Appropriations Committee where we must go next, if we passed today.

And then at last Senator Marco Rubio came in, sitting down very casually, as if he did not hold our future in his hand: the lady in charge asked his vote, and he smiled and said “aye” and we had our fifth vote…

As I walked down 12th street afterwards, trying to remember where the parking lot was, I called Gloria.  She asked if I was excited; I said no, too tired.  How did Sacramento people handle this, I wondered. I just had the one bill, and my brain felt fricasseed—how did legislators keep track of a couple hundred bills—especially when there was not enough money to go around?

My answer was ice cream (technically mocha almond fudge gelato, an Italian delight with absolutely no calories whatsoever) to eat on the way home.

I got the biggest one they had, but I should have gotten two.

Because our bill was still alive.


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