TOWN OF HUNTINGTON, New York, Jan. 8
BY: Andrew Wroblewski
The many prefixes that typically come before William Spencer’s name may best be described as different “hats.” Spencer puts one of them on – the doctor hat – when he heads to his Huntington office and aids his patients. Another, the minister hat, is put on when Spencer is leading services and instilling faith into followers of the church. Both allow him to do one thing: help people.
And that’s where his third hat comes into play, and it’s the hat Spencer waited his whole life to wear.
“Being involved was always a part of my home life growing up and, I think, as an elected official you get an opportunity to weigh in and make decisions that impact everyone,” Spencer said. “I think the future of our country depends on us getting involved. You can’t just sit back, yell at the TV and complain about the way our government is working without being involved.”
Elected in November 2011 by the slimmest of margins, Spencer is now in the last year of his second term in the Suffolk County Legislature. Already, Spencer has able to pass bills focused on remedying issues affecting health, community affairs, the environment and more.
In 2014 alone, Spencer was a part of movements to raise the Suffolk County tobacco purchasing age to 21, ban the sale of powdered caffeine to minors and amend Suffolk County’s human rights law to protect victims of domestic abuse from housing discrimination.
The county’s legislative role, he said, is to provide services residents can’t get on their own and complement town-provided services.
“What’s nice about county government is that it’s global enough where we represent 1.5 million people… but local enough where we can work individually face-to-face with families and understand what their needs are,” he said.
The global aspect of Spencer’s work with Suffolk County can be seen perhaps most clearly in March 2013 when he passed a bill banning companies that distribute energy drinks from marketing to Suffolk County minors – a bill touted as one of the first of its kind in the nation. Introduced as “the man who started it all,” Spencer made an appearance on BBC Radio to discuss the legislation and the global impact it’s since had.
“I look at it not as a chance to get fame or fortune,” he said of the radio appearance in July 2014, “I think of it as just getting the issue out there to save kids’ lives – and that’s just awesome.”
In the same vein of the energy drink marketing ban, Spencer on Oct. 7 co-sponsored a bill that banned the sale of the potentially deadly powdered caffeine to minors in Suffolk County. After a pair of deaths around the country linked to powdered caffeine use – Ohio’s Logan Steiner, 18, and Georgia’s James Wade Sweatt, 24 – Spencer recognized the need for action, and partnered with Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory. The legislation passed, but Spencer didn’t stop there.
“I went down to Washington, D.C. as a part of a delegation with [Gregory], the Steiner family and the Sweatt family where we planned to meet with some U.S. Senators and the FDA [Food and Drug Administration],” Spencer said. “I had the chance to go into the offices and hear the families’ stories and then articulate them [to U.S. politicians], not only from a scientific perspective, but from the government perspective… It was great to have that experience as a lawmaker and physician.”
Not only was he able to explain to Michael Landa, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the dangers of powdered caffeine – which is lethal in a dose of just three grams – but he was able to help comfort two families with broken hearts.
“At the end of the day, Mrs. Steiner came up to me and gave me a hug,” Spencer said, “She cried, her tears were on my collar, and she looked up at me.”
The mother that lost her son said to Spencer: “You guys are angels that were sent to me. I can’t tell you how much I have shared my story, but to have someone articulate what I have been feeling… Thank you.”
Moments like these are what Spencer serves for, he said, while mentioning he’s fonder of serving the community rather than playing the political game. But, as Spencer closes the door on 2014, he enters 2015, an election year.
“Part of the election process is the politics,” he said, “There will be someone that, no matter what they think of me, is going to run against me and talk about what a horrible person I am… but I think I’ve done everything possible to make the most out of the position by serving my constituents.”
Originally published: Long Islander News: Person Of The Year 2014
(Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015; B3)