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Spinal Cord Injury Research Law -- One Vote Short?

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Numb with shock, disappointment and rage, I hurled myself out of the Senate gallery, sat down on the cold marble floor, got out my phone book and cellphone.

We were one vote short...

It was Wednesday, August 22. For two days I had been sitting in that chamber, waiting for AB 1657 (Wieckowski, D-Fremont) to be decided: the bill that would allocate funds (or not) to the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act, named after my paralyzed son.

Yesterday I had gotten the word the bill might come up. It was 9:30 in the morning when I heard, and I did not even take time to put my good suit on, just went as I was. I got involved in a massive traffic jam on the way, and took three and a half hours for a two hour drive.

When I got to the Capitol, five Senators were still undecided: should they add a dollar to traffic tickets to fund medical research toward a cure for paralysis? I visited their offices, spoke to the relevant aide.

"It's a terrific bill, we brought in approximately $85 million dollars for the state in new money, matching grants and add-ons from outside sources -- for a 10-year investment of $15 million-- better than a four to one return -- what do you think? Would your Senator support?"

Four out of five I was able to reach, and they all seemed reasonable.

Then the voting began. I went upstairs in the beautiful Capitol building, to the spectator's gallery...

In a wheelchair sat a broad-shouldered man with long golden hair and a beard like Buffalo Bill. Roman smiled, and we waited...and waited.

We waited all day, until they ran out of time. Then we went home.

In the morning it began again. More sitting, plenty of time for hints of Senatorial personality.

One liked to shout his votes, usually "NOOOOO!!!"

Another said "aye" in a comical way, like falling off a cartoon cliff -- "AIEEEE!" -- and it brought smiles in a tense situation.

If our bill passed, it would next go to "concurrence," meaning the Assembly voted to approve or deny any changes made since they voted on it first.

And then...Governor Jerry Brown would see the bill. And decide.

His vote would be the most difficult of all.

Jerry Brown is from a famous California political family. All his life he has lived in a world of votes and arguments and various attempts at persuasion. He could evaluate arguments like a surgeon dissects muscle.

The only thing I could do was try to organize some letters: the old-fashioned kind, stamps and envelopes. It did not matter if a person had written in support before, or if he or she was out of state; we would need every conceivable letter to be sent to the Governor of California.

If curing paralysis in our lifetime sounded good, I hoped people would write polite letters to:

Governor Jerry Brown, c/o State Capitol, Suite 1173, Sacramento, CA 95814

The governor must know how many folks support AB 1657, the $1 add-on to traffic tickets, money to go to the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act.

I am told he sometimes calls constituents for their opinion. So everyone should include their phone number, just in case!

"Sir?" It was the nice security officer.

Had I fallen asleep again? Was I snoring?

"Your bill is up next. Thought you might like to know." She smiled. An act of kindness.

I turned my gaze back to the Senate floor, twenty feet below. All those desks, each with a button to push: for yes, or for no.

The black rectangle behind the president's podium...red letters and numbers leaped into existence, and as quickly vanished.

AB 1657.

Then began a war of words.

For two days, bill after bill had passed or failed, most all without argument.

But our bill faced a fight.

Senator X. opposed our bill -- twice, at length, passionately -- because there were so many other unmet needs.

Senator Y. said traffic tickets cost too much. There was a rumor (unsubstantiated) that one of her family members had just gotten a traffic ticket and she was furious about that.

Senator Z. expressed concerns about stem cells, of which he did not approve.

I wished I could leap to the microphone to answer every word the objectors spoke: that our bill took nothing away from other program; that if traffic tickets were reduced proportionately, that would be fine; that we respected stem cell research but there was no need for us to compete with the California stem cell program -- but this hour was for senators alone.

Senator Wyland, a Republican, spoke up -- on our behalf -- twice!

Senator Correa asked an intelligent question, the answer to which deflated some objections.

Senator Corbett's gentle eloquence reminded us what we were fighting for.

But it was Senator Kehoe, dressed all in white, who brought it all together:

"As chair of the Appropriations Committee, I shared many of the objections raised today against AB 1657. But the purpose of this bill is so important, and its application to bad driving so appropriate, that I came to support it. I ask -- I urge -- your Aye vote."

The vote was called: one by one the lights were lit -- and when they were all counted, several times -- we were one vote short. We needed 21. We had 20.

"On call," said Senator Simitian, President Pro Tem of the Senate.

So close -- to be stopped now? There were five senators not in the room. Two senators -- Steinberg and Yee -- were steadfast friends of research for cure. But could they be found in time?

Sitting on the floor because there were no chairs, I frantically began making calls. Who was in each senator's district, who might make a call on our behalf?

Chill marble seeped cold through my trousers. Suddenly a hand clasped my shoulder.

I looked up, expecting to be told to move along.

But it was Jeff Barbosa, legislative aide for Bob Wieckowski, author of the bill.

Smiling.

"We got it," he said, "Steinberg and Yee. Both of them."

The Assembly and the Senate of California had taken our side.

Now, we only needed one more vote.