One of the best things about working on AOA is that we get the chance to meet a lot of interesting people. We'll be highlighting a handful of them between now and the start of 2011.
Jimmy Vielkind spends lots of time at the New York State Capitol these days -- but the Times Union political reporter is popping up all over the Capital Region. In addition to his articles in the TU, he's the principle contributor to the paper's Capitol Confidential blog and a regular contributor to the public television program New York Now. Yesterday he even made an appearance on the nationally-syndicated public radio show The Takeaway.
But this week he took some time away from "being Jimmy Vielkind" to tell AOA about life in the LCA, aspiring to be Jed Bartlett/Josh Lyman/ Toby Ziegler, and some of the "Wait a minute, what?" moments he's encountered at the Capitol this year.
The LCA is a tough club to break into, and you're pretty young to have managed to do it. What was the hazing like?
I don't remember most of it. I remembering toasting a shot of Jameson "to 8:51!" and then came to in Montreal the next day wearing two different colored socks.
Seriously, youth can be a virtue. I find myself sometimes saying things like, "Hey! Just, like, as a thought exercise: PRETEND that I was a junior in high school when Mayor Bloomberg was elected in 2001. Just pretend. And tell me what you remember about the election." Sources are happy to explain, and in many instances, they explain things more thoroughly than if I were older.
The Legislative Correspondents Association, which is the group of us who cover the Capitol, is also great in this regard. I have great colleagues at the Times Union who have more context than I, and are always willing to share. Ditto reporters from other newspapers, whose copy I have the benefit of reading every day. It's a free road map on how to write better.
You're heading up the blog, and you're in print and doing a lot of TV. Being a modern journalist means you have to feed all of these different outlets -- but does that ever get in the way of doing your job?
Well, it's a constant balancing act. There's an argument that the time I spend disseminating information across the multiple platforms cuts into the time I could be spending gathering it, and there are some days when I feel that. But on a good day, there are a few central story lines that we're watching, and everything -- blog posts, daily stories, television stuff -- builds off of itself.
But I think it's valuable to deliver information in different ways for different audiences. We play to the insider crowd on the blog, and when I write for the printed paper, I think, "What do my mother and my kindergarten teacher need to know about what happened today?"
So to the question, feeding the multiple outlets -- you forgot @TUCapCon on Twitter, which we've really revamped in the last eight months -- IS my job, and it's the necessary reality for any modern journalist. I think the Times Union really gets that, and I'm happy with the support they offer as we all muddle through it.
The government looks pretty ugly from the outside sometimes -- is it like that up close?
Well, up close I can tell what people had for lunch. Some because they carry it around, some because they carry it around on their ties, and some because I can smell them down the hallway.
Governor Paterson has criticized the Capitol media as a "mob." Would it
be fair to say that the capitol media is part of the problem?
No. I'll be the first person to admit that I have made my share of mistakes in life, and some of them extend to coverage decisions. But in general, I think the public is well-served by the group of dedicated reporters who report, write, and broadcast about state government and politics.
We are not a mob. We seek the best, most complete picture to share with the public. No, the picture isn't pretty, but we're the ones writing about scandals like AEG and the governor's making false statements under oath to the COPI. We're not the ones abusing taxpayer funds or acting in potentially illegal/unethical ways.
If sharing that with the public -- even if Governor Paterson prefers that we don't -- makes me part of a mob, then so be it.
What are the best/worst parts of this job?
State government is powerful. Literally, there are billions of OUR dollars at stake and the ability to grant or remove freedoms in all of OUR daily lives. So the more attention we draw to the important issues, the better they'll be handled in the larger context of our democracy.
As for the worst parts, well, it's never nice to be lied to or yelled at, but that usually happens a few times a week. Also, it can be very stressful to know that people's reputations and well-beings can be severely influenced by what I write, and to keep those consequences in mind in the course of my work.
What's the most sort of WTF moment you've had?
There are a bunch. Here are three:
+ "Not too far from Amsterdam and Saratoga Springs, a little miracle took place; it's called Schenectady."
+ "I didn't say twice. I said that I could cast a vote as senator, and I could cast a vote as acting lieutenant governor. I didn't make that up," Sen.Pedro Espada Jr. said.
+ Asked how he voted [on the expulsion of Sen. Hiram Monserrate] after the Senate session ended, Sen. Antoine Thompson, D-Buffalo, said, "I did not vote yes."
Asked again, he said, "I did not vote yes."
A Buffalo News reporter showed Thompson his notebook with the tally of 53-8 and asked whether he was one of the eight senators who voted no.
"Yes," Thompson said, elaborating that because Monserrate is still appealing his criminal conviction, the Senate should have allowed the appeal process to be completed. He said he favored a censure vote, instead, with an ouster effective in June, pending the outcome of the appeal.
However, on the official tally sheet, Thompson was listed as a yes vote.
Asked about efforts Wednesday morning to change his vote from yes to no, Thompson said, "I'm not sure about that, to be honest."
Did you picture yourself doing this when you were a kid in the Capitol Region?
Kind of. I was one of those "I want to be the president of the United States" kids, and became enthralled with the political history of Albany and the action on the state political scene when I was in high school. I got my first job writing for a newspaper -- as a reporting intern for the Glens Falls Chronicle -- the summer after I graduated from high school, and immediately fell in love with reporting.
Basically, I couldn't believe that there's a job where you get to do cool, interesting stuff -- I was there when Patti Smith played the last night at CBGB, walked on the field at the original Yankee Stadium -- and all they ask you to do is write about it. And you get paid!
So when I figured I could meld the two by reporting on the Capitol...
If not, what did you want to do?
Be some combination of Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler, Leo McGarry and Jed Bartlett.
Actually, for a while I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. I was always pretty good at math, and went through a serious model rocketry phase. Oh well. Such is such.
What's next for you?
I've got the best job in the world. The Capitol beat is great, and the Times Union is a wonderful platform from which to cover it. It's also pretty cool that I get to write for the newspaper that I grew up reading. So, I'm not planning to go anywhere for a while, and if I spend the rest of my life doing some variation of what I do now, I'll be content.
Maybe some day I'll write a book. I'm finishing up a masters degree from UAlbany in urban planning, so maybe I'll do some freelance work along those lines. Maybe someone will call and offer me a job as an astronaut. If there's anyone from NASA reading this...
photo: Lori Van Buren / Times Union
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