April 16, 2024
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Assembly Democrats Pow Wow Ahead of New Legislative Session

New York State Assembly Democrats met last week in Albany for an orientation of what changes are coming in the next legislative session, which begins next month.

There are 107 Democrats in the Assembly, but that dips to as low as 101 seats in the next session. A few races still remain undecided. There will be at least four leadership vacancies, which will elevate some members to the top echelon in the Assembly. Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Northeast Bronx) has served as speaker since 2015 and was reelected last week for another two-year term as house leader. Assembly Republican Leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski, Oswego County) will remain in his post for another two years as well.

Heastie and his staff choose which rooms lawmakers get for offices and which of the 37 committees the members will be assigned to, sometimes based on recommendations from the lawmakers. Since there are many more lawmakers than established standing committees, the Assembly leadership has created 40 subcommittees, nine legislative commissions, 11 task forces and other entities in an effort to give lawmakers a place they can focus their attention when enacting legislation.

While 14 members chose not to seek reelection, three incumbent members were defeated in primaries earlier this year, and four incumbents were defeated at the polls in November. Three seats remain too close to call. In a race in Queens, the incumbent is leading by one vote, with close to 100 ballots in the hands of the court to decide which ones should be opened and which ones are invalid. Who says every vote doesn’t count?

In January, there will be one new Jewish lawmaker in the Assembly sworn into office. Dana Levenberg, 58, is the Ossining town supervisor and serves as chief of staff to her predecessor, Sandy Galef, 82, who decided not to seek reelection.

For Levenberg this was a “generic orientation.” She told The Jewish Link that she learned about the mounds of “paperwork, medical benefits, hiring, ethics training, sexual harassment training, all of the things we are required to do, and we want to make sure that right from the get-go we know what we need to know. We talked about how a bill becomes a law. All the supports that are in place. Then, of course, having an opportunity to meet the freshman class. I can’t say we got to know each other so well; we definitely got to spend a little time with one another. We got to spend some time with the speaker. Then we got to know our other colleagues and learn about what the challenges are ahead for us with the budget.”

Even though campaign treasurers were not invited to this enclave, all the lawmakers learned about the new campaign finance reform regulations.

“It’s complicated,” Levenberg said. “The regulations are a matter of public law, so that’s something you can look up on your own. There are some specific requirements of the law that I will say could be complicated by another round of redistricting, and that may need some looking at. With any law, as you get into the details of how the implementation goes, you may see some areas that need refinement.”

Levenberg and her husband, Stephen Hersh, affiliate with the Croton-on-Hudson-based Temple Israel of Northern Westchester, a Reform congregation.

During the primary and general election campaigns, “I focused on my mantra, which is building healthy communities. Environmentally healthy, economically healthy, physically and mentally healthy. I believe it’s really important to focus on those overarching goals for both the district and the state. It touches on all of the things broadly that we need to really be focused on.

“How decisions are made in Albany can affect us on the local level, whether it’s in the school district or in the municipality, and making sure that the money that comes down from the federal government, state government and county government gets distributed in an equitable fashion to our communities.

“Making sure we are maintaining and building our infrastructure is critically important,” Levenberg said. “Indian Point [nuclear power plant] is in our district. Making sure the decommissioning is done safely, thoroughly and securely and there continues to be the type of attention paid to that safety is very important to our district as well. Obviously, we have to make sure we have clean energy that’s coming down the pipe to support the loss of Indian Point being online as we segue our dependence off of fossil fuels.

“We have a state prison, and we need to make sure that corrections and criminal justice is a top priority to reduce recidivism. When convicts come out of prison, we need to make sure they have a chance for success and to get back into society with good-paying jobs and being productive members of our communities. I believe they can be and they should be,” she said.

Levenberg has at least seven committees she prefers to be appointed to that match with the issues facing her constituents, including environmental conservation,
education, labor, corrections, local government, energy and housing.

“If you work in an Assembly office you know that so much of the work you do is supporting constituents and helping them on a day-to-day basis with issues that they might have with a state agency or some way you can help by utilizing state agencies or other areas of your office,” Levenberg said. “I’ll always be committed to helping people. That’s why I got into public service.”

Assemblyman Harvey Epstein (D-East Village) has been a member of the lower house since 2018. He found the two-day orientation to be enlightening.

“We talked about what the systems are, what the structures are and what we are planning on doing going forward. It was a lot of good information for me about who we are as an Assembly and what the future will hold. We spent a long time talking about the new campaign finance system that is going to be in effect, Epstein, 55, told The Jewish Link. “It just started in November so we’re just learning what the system is and how it works.”

One issue Epstein wants to highlight next year is the rising scourge of antisemitism.

“Everything I do is for the Jewish community,” Epstein said. “We’ve seen the growth of antisemitism in the last year. I’m someone who has faced antisemitism multiple times in my life. I’ve had people draw antisemitic things on my office. They were, luckily, arrested. We have to deal with the antisemitism through education. People just don’t understand. People don’t respect difference. We need to, as Jews, make sure we focus on strengthening protections and also do a lot of education because people don’t even understand the Holocaust.

“I think I’m really hopeful about the future that we have together. I think in the Jewish community, we as Jews need to do a better job communicating with each other. I don’t think we do a good enough job. There are people who are Jewish who are telling me I’m not a Jew. I was born a Jew, my parents are Jewish, I had a bar mitzvah, I got circumcised, I lived my whole life as a Jew, and other Jews [are] telling me I’m not Jewish or not kosher. I grew up in a kosher home and I’m a vegan, so I’ve been kosher my whole life. Those things matter to me, and [as] someone who’s Jewish and identifies as being Jewish, [I feel] it’s really not right to say I’m not Jewish. We need to do a better job together.”

Epstein, his wife, Anita, and their two children attend services at the East End Temple, Congregation El Emet, a Reform congregation on East 17th Street in Manhattan.

Other issues important to Epstein include the right to counsel for veterans, putting an end to veterans’ housing discrimination, available funding for housing programs, co-op/condo conversions to allow buildings to do conversions for long-term affordability, a 24-hour work rule for home health care workers and making sure a path can be created to allow for some legalization of basement apartments.

For Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Upper West Side), first elected in 2006, she is leaving her appointments to various committees up to the Speaker and his staff. She is currently the head of the social services committee and is a member of four other committees as well as three subcommittees and two task forces focused on women’s issues.

Rosenthal, 65, told The Jewish Link, “Housing, opioids, helping people who are struggling with substance abuse disorders, legalizing psychedelics, decriminalizing psychedelics for treatments and domestic violence” will be her focus in the next session.

Without giving much detail, Rosenthal said, “I’m having a town hall meeting in my district soon about antisemitism.”

It’s a chord that hits home in different ways for these three lawmakers.

Levenberg said: “My mother was a hidden child during World War II. My grandparents were also hidden and they reunited at the end of the war. My mother’s experiences included when she was 50 [years old] reuniting with the family who hid her. That family from Holland has been a part of our lives for many years now.”

Epstein recalled: “My grandfather and most of his family died in the Holocaust. People continue to say there wasn’t a Holocaust. We have to do a lot of work to educate people about what our history is and do a lot of work explaining to people that I’m a person just like everyone else. I don’t have horns. I don’t come from a different place. I’m just a human being. We should respect each other as human beings who have different religious backgrounds.”

Rosenthal’s parents fled the Nazis in the 1930s.

On Monday, December 12, at Lincoln Square synagogue in Manhattan, Governor Kathy Hochul, flanked by prominent leaders of the Jewish community and elected officials such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, declared she is creating “a statewide hate and bias-prevention unit that will be embedded within the Department of Human Rights.

“It’s not just going to be sitting in a bureaucratic office,” Hochul said. “This is going to be part of a statewide initiative
going to all 62 counties to educate and also be an early warning system. We can be in the prevention business as well by educating people as to what the signs are. This is going to be a task force that is going to go all over the state of New York, have meetings convened to bring together stakeholders and the trusted voices that can rise up with us.”

By Marc Gronich

 

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