Recapturing times gone by in politics


Everyone agrees that there is a massive lack of bipartisanship in today’s political arena. Washington, D.C., is the poster child for warfare between Democrats and Republicans. Which is why my recent trip to Albany was a throwback to times gone by. I refer specifically to an event known as the Pilots Dinner.

Every year, present and former members of the Assembly gather for the Pilots Dinner. Any member who has served in the Assembly for at least ten years is eligible to be a Pilot. This year’s event attracted over 100 people, with a mix of present and former members in one room.

While some members clustered in corners with their party allies, the vast majority of the crowd mingled with old friends and the new Pilots. Within minutes of my arrival, I was greeted with an enormous bear hug by former Nassau County Assemblyman George Madison. Madison is now an upstate retiree, but he has a newfound appetite for politics, because his son-in-law is an Assembly member.

There’s no doubt that a gathering of any former colleagues is a sobering experience, because all of us change with the passage of time. Some members whom we recall were strong, vibrant personalities now show that time is not always kind to our bodies. But the past years of collegiality shone very brightly as I moved around the room.

Within a few minutes after I arrived, I spotted former Nassau Republican Assemblywoman Donna Ferrara. I got the anticipated warm hug as she spoke proudly about her two grown children. She asked me about my two younger daughters and my wife, Suzan, and there wasn’t a hint of partisanship. It was just a few moments of talking about times gone by.

Before I could move on for some more hellos, I was tapped on the shoulder by former Republican Assembly Minority Leader Tom Reynolds, who’s now a Washington lobbyist. Tom served for 10 years in Congress, where he held a major leadership position. We reminisced about great floor debates and past Assembly leaders such as Perry Duryea and Stanley Fink.

Then we were joined by former Republican Assemblyman Willis Stephens Jr. Will comes from a family with a long history of public service. His grandfather Mallory Stephens was chair of the Ways and Means Committee, as was his father, Willis Stephens, who’s now 99. I was also chair of the committee, and have a long history with the Stephens family.

Once the meet-and-greet portion of the dinner was over, the assembled members sat down for the formal program. Newly minted members of the Pilots were introduced, and both Republicans and Democrats were given warm receptions. Past and present party leaders made speeches, and there was a warm glow in the room. The younger members were given some history lessons about leaders of yesterday, and they learned that many things were accomplished by people they had never heard of.

One of the final highlights of the evening was the tribute to Speaker Pro Tem Jeffrion Aubry, who is retiring after 31 years of service to his Queens community. Jeff, as we know him, offered a few barbs to both Democrats and Republicans, chiding them for some of their conduct during floor debates. One of his proudest accomplishments was his success in getting the home of the late Louis Armstrong turned into a public museum.

Perhaps most of this is of little or no interest to readers, given the absence of familiar names and the lack of a controversial subject. But the Pilots dinner sparked lots of conversation among the younger and newer attendees about a time gone by, when there were no barriers to getting things accomplished in government.

It isn’t a fantasy to wish or hope for more bipartisanship in any government forum. Perhaps with the passage of time and the disappearance of the public figures who promote anger and hatred in government, we’ll get a new crop of people who will want to work together. At least, that is my wish.

Jerry Kremer was an Assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column?