Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The 246th legislative session kicked off on January 4 with the swearing-in of 24 new members in the state Assembly—11 Democrats and 13 Republicans along with 14 new members in the state Senate—six Democrats, all women, and eight Republicans, seven men and one woman.

In the Assembly, the Democrats put the spotlight on the dominance of female lawmakers appointed to the new makeup of the leadership, committee chairmanships and subcommittee heads. Of the 39 committees, 19 women are chairmen. Of the 40 subcommittees, 19 are led by women. Of the 21 positions of leadership, 10 are held by women. Of the 100 total positions of leadership posts, 48 are held by women.

While the 102-member Democratic conference boasts 49 female members (48%), which parallels the representation of the leadership of women, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) had a slight challenge with the math.

“For the first time in history, a majority of our committee chairs in this chamber are now women,” Heastie said, despite prior to joining the Assembly, he served as a budget analyst in the New York City Comptroller’s office, earning a master’s degree in business administration with a concentration in finance from Baruch College of CUNY and a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and statistics from SUNY Stony Brook University.

One Jewish lawmaker told The Jewish Link that women in major roles will mean positive action.

“I have been an advocate for women in leadership roles my entire life,” said Assemblywoman Didi Barrett (D-Hudson, Columbia County). “I don’t think we have equity in our chamber of women members but to have women in these leadership roles and committees is really important. I actually think women do a better job of building coalitions and getting things done, and I think we’re going to see that happen this year.”

The diversity in the legislature is like the United Nations and is presently demonstrated a great deal more than ever before. Lawmakers now either hail from 22 countries or are first-generation Americans from Belize, China, Colombia, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Greece, Haiti, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Jordan, Nepal, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Russia, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago and Uganda.

“I think we have seen a lot of diversity in this chamber, which I think is the most diverse chamber of any legislative body, including Congress,” Barrett said. “I’m really glad to have our Jewish community represented and the voices shared, and I know it’s not just one part of the Jewish community. I think it’s really important that the Jewish members be at the table on a whole range of different topics, especially now with a horrible increase in antisemitism.”

One of those immigrant lawmakers from Russia told The Jewish Link that hate crimes must be curtailed, if not eliminated.

“Some of the criminals who are committing crimes against Jewish people, hate crimes, etc. sometimes they are getting out of the courts right away. They have to be punished and they have to be in jail and we have to keep them in jail,” said Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny (R-Brighton Beach, Brooklyn). “When something goes wrong in society everyone blames the Jews. Hashem made the world this way. That we’re responsible for everything. In the eyes of many other people, we’re responsible for the crime, the bad economy. One way or another [they think that] Jewish people are responsible. This is the grounds for the hate crimes against the Jewish people.”

One Assembly Democratic leader agreed with Brook-Krasny.

“I am grateful to be a part of protecting the state from hate crimes and the extreme radicalization of far too many Black Americans, Asian Americans, LGBTQ Americans, Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans,” said Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo, Erie County). “This hate has to stop. Sometimes it calls for legislative policy. This state has taken some legislative policies but do we have more to do on that? Yes, we do.”

There are more Jewish lawmakers now than ever before, with 23 Jewish members in the 150-member state Assembly (15%) and five in the 63-member state Senate (.07%). Combined, that translates to 13% of the membership in both houses.

If you are not persuaded to vote because you don’t think your vote counts, here are two examples that might change your mind.

Last week, Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer-Amato (D-Far Rockaway, Queens) beat her opponent by a mere 15 votes. She was seated in the state Assembly by a vote of 120 ayes to zero nays even though there were more than 120 members in the chamber at the time.

In the Hudson Valley, Chris Eachus (D-New Windsor, Orange County) defeated his opponent by a meager eight votes, flipping a Republican-held seat to the Democratic side.

Bichotte Hermelyn was promoted to the leadership post of Majority Whip, responsible for corralling the members votes on controversial issues. Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein (D-Borough Park, Brooklyn) was also elevated to the post of Assistant Majority Whip. Assemblywoman Inez Dickens (D-Harlem, Manhattan) is the Deputy Majority Whip. There is no explanation as to why so many whips are needed to corral members’ votes in the Assembly.

In a prepared statement, Eichenstein wrote that he “will focus on bringing together our diverse and multifaceted communities throughout New York state. As always, I am committed to advocating for my constituents who have put their trust and faith in me by giving me the privilege of representing them. I will do my best to fulfill my responsibilities and will continue to work tirelessly on their behalf. Only by working together as a unified force can we successfully accomplish our goals for the people of this great state. Together we can achieve greatness.”

Lt. Governor Antonio Delgado (D-Rhinebeck, Dutchess County) tried to hit a conciliatory tone in his remarks to the state Senate. Delgado, a former member of Congress, presides over the Senate session when he is in Albany.

“During my time in Congress, I made it a point to do everything I could to try to find common ground. That’s the spirit I hope to bring to bear and I hope that we all in this body are committed to and dedicated to,” Delgado told the senators. “It is incumbent upon all of us to do all we can to cooperate for the people that we represent. New Yorkers expect that and that expectation should be fulfilled. It is certainly a top priority of mine and I believe for all of you, to listen, to advocate and to deliver for the communities that you represent. I thank you for your dedication, for your commitment and for your willingness to serve.”

Ortt, the Republican leader, was a bit less appeasing than Delgado.

“We are not here simply to oppose anything that comes out of the majority. We are here to do the job that we were elected to do by our constituents. Millions of New Yorkers, when you add it up,” Ortt (R-North Tonawanda, Eris County) said. “They expect us to do the job we were elected to do. To represent their values. To represent their issues. To represent them here. Sometimes that means working together, bipartisanship for the sake of the people in this state. Sometimes that will mean voicing opposition, and that’s important in a democracy. It’s important that the values of our constituents are heard.”

In advance of Governor Kathy Hochul’s January 10 State of the State address to a joint legislative session, Stewart-Cousins jumped ahead and talked about the main topics on the governor’s agenda—housing, crime, the economy and education.

“We know some of our issues. We see families from across our state being stretched from both ends. We know they feel uncertain about how to protect themselves and secure their livelihood as the cost of living continues to surpass the average income. The affordability crisis touches every nerve in our community and underpins most of the hardship New Yorkers are facing,” Stewart-Cousins said.

“We see it most acutely in the current housing shortage that is devastating New Yorkers from across the state, leaving many to wonder whether they will be able to make rent, let alone buy a house. The current market is failing to provide adequate supply and leaving too many families without a roof over their head. It’s time for we, as lawmakers, to step in with corrective actions that will keep real estate development competitive and meet the growing needs while protecting tenants and homeowners from being priced out of their neighborhoods. We need a transformative statewide housing policy that can address this issue and its spillover effects. If we can tackle this problem, we will inevitably solve its offshoots as well.”

Then the Senate majority leader diverted her remarks to solving crime through education as corrective measures to the housing crisis and economic affordability.

“We’re listening to the real fears New Yorkers have about their communities. We understand that perception is powerful, which includes ongoing concerns regarding crime and public safety. We have to remember that crime will not be solved with a single solution. Public safety and justice can go hand in hand. It’s important to ensure that true criminals are the only ones being punished. For that to happen we need a multifaceted approach that targets the source of the crimes as well as its symptoms. You can’t address the public safety crisis if you don’t also address the educational crisis. Access to high-quality schooling is the key to greater prosperity and stability for our children,” she concluded.

Assemblyman Sam Pirozzolo (R-Castleton Corners, Staten Island) was assigned to be a member of the education committee. As an education advocate, Pirozzolo has participated in historic litigation that led to the return of more than $4 billion to New York public schools, according to his Assembly profile. He also fought to ensure that co-located charter schools receive the same capital funding as their host public schools.

“We really need to revamp the [education] system,” Pirozzolo told The Jewish Link. “I think it’s a myth that you send your children to a square building eight hours a day and they come out educated. I want accountability from the system, not necessarily from individuals. I don’t think the system works to serve a lot of the community, especially the minority community, and things need to be changed. I’m not looking to hold individuals responsible. We need to look at ideas of education differently than we do now.”

Brook-Krasny has a personal take on education policy.

“Of course, we have to support yeshivas,” Brook-Krasny said. “The generations of my Chasidic family, they issue graduates in different places, of course, I think starting with the Bolsheviks in the 17th century. Of course, I’m going to be there every moment I can to support yeshivas. I’ll be there. I’m also supporting school choice. Parents need to decide where their kids are going to be educated and what school will educate them, whether it’s a charter school, yeshiva or a Catholic school. We have to support all of them.”

As the session moves into high gear, the fundraising by state lawmakers to bolster their depleted campaign accounts should accelerate as well. Lobbying by issue-oriented advocates also kicks into high gear in an effort for lobbyists to influence lawmakers to see their clients’ side of the issues, whatever that may be.

The state budget is due on Friday, March 31. The 63-day legislative session is expected to wrap up on Thursday, June 8.

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