Whenever Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver gets involved with a bill or a conflict, his chief counsel, Jim Yates, is by his side.
In March, when Silver needed votes to pass the governor’s new Tier VI pension plan, Yates was out on the Assembly floor, talking to members, whipping votes.
That night was special because the legislators stayed up all night to pass bills, but Yates said that legislative staffers work through the night on a regular basis.
“There are a thousand things going on at any one time,” Yates said, noting that the speaker doesn’t get involved in every single bill. “What I become aware of are the things that become a problem, or things that I guess you would call speaker’s or conference issues.”
Yates specializes in jump-starting legislation that has long been stalled, such as the organ-donation bill known as Lauren’s Law, or the land-bank legislation.
His strategy is one of extreme patience, a skill he honed over 18 years as a judge on both the State Court of Claims and the State Supreme Court.
“One thing I’ve learned from being on the bench is: Don’t assume anything, and wait until you hear both sides,” he said. “First impressions are often wrong. It’s amazing how many times you can change your mind.”
This is Yates’ second tour as legislative counsel to the speaker. The last time he held the post was from 1989 to 1992, when he served under Speaker Mel Miller. When he was first hired to work for the Assembly in 1979, the Pennsylvania native was an Albany politics neophyte.
“I didn’t know anything about politics at that point,” Yates said. “I probably couldn’t even have told you who my Senate or Assembly representatives were. I remember when Mel [Miller] went to hire me he said, ‘You have to get final approval from Stanley Fink,’ and I said, ‘Who’s that?’ He laughed and said, ‘You’ll learn.’ ” —Laura Nahmias
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