The Agony and the Exhaustion: The Price of Politics?

07/02/2012 10:27 am ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012
  • Don C. Reed Sponsor, California’s Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act of 1999

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Wallace describes the creative process, as Michaelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. Change the last word to "exhaustion," and you have a pretty good summation of politics as well.

Everybody in the California Capitol was running on fumes, or so it seemed, on Tuesday, June 26th in the halls outside room 4203.

Nine people would decide the fate of a $1.00 traffic ticket add-on: money to fund the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act, named after my paralyzed son. If that bill (AB 1657) became law, it would mean roughly $3 million a year for the fight against paralysis.

It had passed the Assembly already. We needed this committee, Transportation and Housing, then Appropriations, then the full body of the Senate -- and then, with the Governor's signature, the research would go forward -- and my son had a chance to walk again.

Roman was working his cell phone furiously, asking friends for one more phone call, one more e-mail to the members of the committee, especially Mark DeSaulinier, the Chairman.

I was running up and down the stairs between the floors of the Sacramento Capitol building--no time to wait for elevators -- taking last minute messages to the offices of the committee members.

We needed five "aye" votes. Five.

At last, there were no more errands to run, no way to influence the situation. We could only sit and wait to speak.

I took an aisle seat in the conference room, waiting for Roman to pull in beside me.

At three o'clock, Assemblyman Wieckowski approached the podium, adjusted the mike.

"Hey, Don!" whispered a voice behind me. It was Angela Gilliard of the University of California, here in support!

I heard the click and hum of a power chair. As we three headed for the witness area, I passed Roman a copy of the speech I had written for him.

Roman placed the speech on the table in front of him, looked at it for a moment -- and then shoved it away.

"I don't need to read it -- I live it," he said. Which was effective, I supposed, except that I now had to squeeze some of his prepared remarks into my already crowded three minutes speaking time ... But Roman is a force of nature, and knows what he is doing.

He covered the emotional aspects. I listed the nuts-and-bolts. Angela Gilliard explained how every dollar California spent had attracted four dollars from the federal government, giving us an actual profit, quadruple the bang for the buck. Fourteen million over ten years had brought in sixty-four million from the National Institutes of Health and other sources.

The Chair thanked us for our testimony -- but there were not enough members present for the vote.

So ... we waited.

I sat there twitching from too much coffee, planning what to say if we lost.

The program was great -- no one disagreed. Well, except maybe the California Catholic Conference, which called part of our research "immoral." We had funded embryonic stem cell research (4 projects out of 129) early on. I was proud of the research and most Catholic families (like my own) supported it.

Our original $1.5 million a year had come from the general fund: taxes. But now, thanks to Republicans taking a no-new-taxes pledge, there was just not enough money in the budget.

Why was it so hard for California to raise taxes on the rich? People trash-talked the Democrats, calling us the "tax-and-spend" party. I never understood why this was an insult. Of course we would tax and of course we would spend, to fight problems too big for families to handle on their own -- what was wrong with that? People who had gotten rich off our state and our country should naturally chip in and help -- were they not patriotic?

Denied help from taxes, we were forced to hunt for alternative funding. Fortunately, most people understood the car-crash connection between bad driving and spinal cord injury.

We did not like slapping an extra dollar cost on traffic tickets. But what choice did we have, except to let the program die?

Would I be helping my son get out of bed every morning for the rest of my life? I am 66 now. What happens when my strength fails?

We had to win. If we failed this year, we must come back next year and every year until they got so sick of seeing us, they would say yes just to get rid of us.

"They have a quorum now," and Jeff Barbosa, "enough members for a deciding vote."

But would it be enough to win?

One by one the votes were tallied. The "ayes" on our side: Mark DeSaulnier, Alan Lowenthal, Joe Smitian -- and Wyland, Mark Wyland, a Republican: thank you, sir!

But it was only four. The opposition was Ted Gaines and Tom Harman, Republicans.

Two Democratic members -- Christine Kehoe and Fran Pavley -- did not vote. I don't know why. I felt a chill up my spine. Senator Kehoe was the Chair of the Appropriations Committee where we must go next, if we passed today.

And then at last Senator Michael Rubio came in, sitting down very casually, as if he did not hold our future in his hand: the lady in charge asked his vote, and he smiled and said "aye."

The fifth vote...

As I walked down 12th street afterwards, hunting for the parking lot, I called Gloria. She asked if I was excited; I said no, too tired. How did Sacramento people handle this, I wondered. I just had one bill, and my brain felt fricasseed -- how did legislators keep track of a couple hundred bills -- and not enough money to go around?

My answer was ice cream (technically mocha almond fudge gelato, an Italian delight with no calories whatsoever) to eat on the way home.

I got the biggest one they had, but I should have gotten two.

Our bill was still alive.