As I remember it, I thought up the idea of The Legislative Gazette towards the end of 1977. I was in the shower when the idea came to me. I was already running the highly regarded New Paltz internship in New York State government as a professor in the Political Science Department. Well, one thing leads to another and I had been writing columns in my local paper but I had, years before, been the publisher of the Fire Island Sun, the alternative newspaper based in Ocean Beach, Fire Island. When the good people who had out the money into that project asked me to be the publisher I had visions of Perry White, his feet up on the desk, yelling out orders to Lois and Clark to do this or that. Turns out that I sure got that wrong. Among my other small duties I had to sell the ads and keep the books. When they asked me to do it again the next year I said, “Are you kidding?” I didn’t walk, I ran. But, I had learned what was involved.
Anyway, I was taking a shower one morning, which is where I get most of my good ideas because of my theory that when the water hits the molecules of your brain they are energized, resulting in one’s best ideas (okay those who can’t have fun, hold your letters!) Anyway, I had the idea of replicating my Fire Island experience with the journalism and political science students at New Paltz. I went to the college administration and got a lot of support, particularly from Vice President Peter Vukasin and Special Assistant to the President Gail Gallerie. The Dean of the College at the time, Ned Sullivan, thought the idea was very dangerous because of the risk of alienating some politicians, but the President of the College, Stanley Coffman, took Vukasin’s advice and the paper got the green light. They all came around but it wasn’t until years later that I suggested that we sell advertising to support The Gazette. Most of the top people thought that was a good idea because it would get the onus of paying for the printing off their backs. That turned out to be a good idea, and the money came rolling in. We knew that The Gazette was a must read because the members of the Legislature could be seen reading the paper as they sat at their desks.
There were plenty of war stories. For example, when we first started the project, but before the first edition came out, we heard that there would be no newspaper. Frankly, the people opposed were the Republicans who controlled the State Senate. Since I had worked as a consultant for Manfred Ohrenstein the Democratic Minority Leader, some of the Republicans felt this would be a Democratic operation. So I was told to fold my tent and go home, and that’s what I told the students we had recruited. I told them that I would find them internships but the paper would not happen.
Of course, I had underestimated the students who would not sit still for that kind of treatment. The extraordinary leader of that group was Anne Erickson who was infuriated and who had already started to make friends with legislators and staffers. In probably the most important move in the history of the project, she went to see the folks at The New York Times and The Associated Press who made a call to the Republican powers that be and asked why they were trying to kill a student newspaper. It didn’t take long for the message to come back to us that we could stay.
In addition I had gotten to know Marsha Scharfman, who had a leadership role in the office of one of the greatest men I have ever known in state politics, Republican Norman Levy, who I am told by reliable sources in the room at the time, looked at his colleagues and said, “Oh come on, how many of you have come to Albany to kill a student newspaper.” That turned the tide, but we weren’t going to ever have many friends until we had proven ourselves.
Of course there was no money to help the students to find places to live and to just get by. So our Anne Erickson, now the CEO of the Empire Justice Center, decided that she would put on a fundraiser at the Lark Tavern on Madison Avenue down by the Legislature where she was working in the kitchen to make ends meet. Then Anne and her coworkers made the rounds selling tickets. It turned out to be some night.
Remember that the Republicans were not happy about the Gazette. The first person to arrive, sit at the bar and talk to the student reporters was a Democratic State Senator, Olga Mendez. She was animated, she was wonderful and I have always remembered her very fondly. What a lady!
Then in came this other guy who was formally the President of the New York State Senate, the lieutenant governor of the state, Mario M. Cuomo who sat at the long bar and talked to everyone. This was amazing since that was the very night of the annual Senate Dinner, the highlight of the Senate social year when not only all the senators, but all the alumni senators showed up to regale each other with stories of their lives and reminiscences. I remember that some of the students entertained, and I remember that I played the banjo and sang some folk songs.
So there was Cuomo at the bar talking with kids and around midnight the door to the bar flew open and there they all were. Among the luminaries were not only the entire Senate leadership, including the top leader, Warren Anderson and the Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink. I still don’t know whether Cuomo had shamed them into showing up because of his presence or whether they got some kind of religion but there they were and of course, it was a very important moment in the history of The Legislative Gazette.
There is an old saying that God will provide. Somehow I just thought that this newspaper like earlier mentioned Fire Island Sun would just start and go. Nope, while I thought it up, we needed an editor. When I approached the English Department which housed the journalism program they insisted that since I was going to be the publisher that they would name the editor. They did. Mason Rossiter Smith had worked as a reporter around the Legislature years before, and when he showed up, he expected things would be in place for him and of course they were not. Then heaven did provide when Arthur Cash, the legendary and wonderful chair of the college English Department showed up one day and introduced me to the man who single-handedly made The Legislative Gazette a success. That man, Glenn Doty had been a long-time managing editor of a Hudson Valley newspaper but who had no college degree. Doty, I was told by Cash, would work as an assistant editor and I would mentor him at Empire State College until he got his BA degree.
From the day he arrived he took those students, gave them beats and assignments and took huge amounts of time teaching each and every one of them to write. Mason Rossiter Smith seemed to disappear and Glenn held forth for a long time. He was a phenom of the first order, and if you speak with virtually any of his students, they will tell you how he taught them to write and changed their lives.
He wasn’t always that easy as a personality. He had huge fights with the advertising department and I think it’s fair to say that his politics and mine may have been more than slightly different, but he was the guy who made the paper. I often think that his appearance was just one more piece of proof that there is a guiding hand that determines our fate.
So here we are forty years later thanks to our wonderful editors, James Gormley and Glenn Doty and to all those wonderful students who made it happen.