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First Orthodox Jewish Republican Assemblyman Sworn Into Office in Albany

It was an auspicious day on Monday, April 25 when Eric “Ari” Brown, 54, was sworn into office with his family and friends by his side.

For the past four decades at least, there has always been at least one Jewish assemblyman on the Republican side of the aisle. It just worked out that way. All have followed the Reform or Conservative movements of Judaism. Brown joins the ranks of those who preceded him with one twist. Brown is an Orthodox Jew. The only one ever to serve as a Republican. Brown (R-Cedarhurst, Nassau County) attends services at the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst.

There have been many Orthodox Jews in the Assembly, but all were Democrats. There are currently three Orthodox Jews in the Democratic conference: Simcha Eichenstein of Brooklyn along with Dan Rosenthal and David Weprin, both of Queens. When Brown took his oath of office in the Republican conference room on Monday, and when he was given praise on the Assembly floor by the Republican leader, the other three Orthodox Jewish members did not cross party lines to publicly congratulate Brown on his victory and joining the ranks of the Assembly.

Brown won his seat on April 7 in a special election due to the resignation of another Jewish lawmaker, Melissa “Missy” Miller. Due to the legislative break for the holidays celebrated by Jews, Catholics and Muslims, April 25 was the first day back for state lawmakers.

The Jewish Link was given unfettered access to the swearing-in ceremony and was the only media outlet to cover the auspicious occasion.

“As some of you are aware, special elections are kind of tricky things. They are chaotic, they have an accelerated time frame, and always, there is a ton of confusion,” noted Assembly Republican Leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski, Oswego County). “What helps to overcome those challenges is a candidate who knows his community, who stands on the right side of the issues and is willing to get out there, work hard and get his message to the voters. That’s why we’re very, very fortunate that Ari Brown was willing to run for this office. He brings a tremendous amount of experience and energy to Albany.”

Brown did not use a Bible, Talmud, Chumash or any religious book to swear his oath. There was no judge or rabbi to administer the oath. He just simply raised his right hand and repeated the oath as Barclay said the words. Then Brown addressed his colleagues.

“Local government is very different. I will try with everything I do to take the same approach in this particular office,” Brown told his new colleagues and staff in attendance. “Small government works great. You get involved with people on a very personal level. I worked with my dad for nearly four decades in the construction business. My father always had these great expressions and life lessons. My father brought me up to a roof at five years old. Who does that? Thank God I got all my fingers still, and no one ever fell off. My father said, ‘Watch where you’re standing.’ I knew what he meant by that. In Hebrew there is an expression Da lifnei mi attah omed—Look before whom you’re standing. I’m going to focus on my area when I have to work for the state. I’ll focus on my area, which is what I was elected for. I will work across the aisle as best as I can, but I will do it as a public servant.”

Being in the Assembly, Brown will have to make a few adjustments in his style of getting legislation accomplished fast, which he is used to as deputy mayor of the village of Cedarhurst. It’s the hurry-up-and-wait syndrome.

“One piece of advice I can recommend to him is that things move slowly at the state level,” Assemblyman Michael Reilly (R-Eltingville, South Shore, Staten Island) told The Jewish Link. “I know when we all first came into office we were filled with a lot of vigor and we’re ready to go. We want to make sure we get things done and hit the ground running, and unfortunately at the state level things move slowly. It takes a lot of time to get used to sitting around waiting to get things done. The advice I can give him is just to absorb the process, sit back, enjoy the ride. Welcome to the Assembly.”

That might not be so easy for Brown, who joins a conference outnumbered by Democrats by more than two to one, 106 to 44.

“I have to take a breath. It’ll take time to learn but it should come relatively easy. I’m frustrated with the delays and slowness. I like it fast,” Brown told The Jewish Link. “I find it disrespectful that we’re waiting all this time. I don’t understand that. … I have a bad habit of always being early. There’s no reason for [these delays and waiting around]. I don’t think it’s a spiteful thing. … It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Another item Brown might find frustrating and disrespectful is that even though he won his election on April 7, the Assembly website, which is controlled by the Democrats, still has his seat listed as a vacancy with no bio information or contact information for his district or Albany office. His name plate outside his office, Room 544, is still missing. One of the first items of business when Brown found his office on the fifth floor of the Legislative Office Building, was to affix a mezuzah to the doorpost. A practice that is allowed, according to legislative rules. Other lawmakers have a mezuzah on their doorpost as well.

Another GOP lawmaker advised Brown, a card-carrying NRA member, to focus on public safety and fighting crime in order to win reelection in November.

“One thing our conference has been able to do effectively is push forth an agenda to improve the safety in our state. Crime is an issue that a lot of our constituents are concerned about. I think that Ari and myself would do this state a service by pushing pro-public safety legislation,” Assemblyman Michael Tannousis (R-Great Kills, East Shore, Staten Island) told The Jewish Link. “The Assembly is a very easy place to hit the ground running. Ari is not a stranger to public service. This is another step in his career in public service. He will have a network of individuals, including myself, that he will be able to rely on for advice, for questions, where he will learn how the Assembly operates and how to effectively represent his constituency here in Albany.”

With only 16 session days to go until lawmakers break for the rest of the year on June 2 and begin campaigning for their June 28 primary or November 8 general election faceoff, Brown realizes he can’t make a real impact over the remaining time. Without assigning Brown committees he’s interested in, the Republican leadership simply took the easy way and gave him the same committees his predecessor had, most of which he’s not interested in because they don’t fit his profile. For example, he was assigned the ranking member of the committee on people with disabilities, a passionate area for his predecessor, Miller, because she has a special-needs child.

“I have a lot to learn about that. [People with disabilities] is certainly not my forte. My forte is construction, infrastructure,” Brown said. “They assigned me to these things. I’ll look to help out the best I can. I just got the bills today. I have to learn and learn quickly.”

Another annoyance for Brown on his first day on the job is the disparity of allotments for office personnel, supplies and office space.

“I have one staff in Albany and one staff I’ll be picking in the district. So it’ll just be two staff people. They gave me $100,000 to run the two legislative offices,” Brown said. “The majority gets $200,000. What does being in the majority or the minority have to do with staff? I’m not a politician. I don’t like these politics at all. How do you pay a staff on Long Island? It’s one of the most expensive communities in the state. We’ll do our best. That’s what I’ve always done.”

Brown is currently unmarried, a father of seven and grandfather of two. He says he won’t relinquish his $11,000-a-year job as deputy mayor of Cedarhurst. He will keep that post along with his $110,000 Assembly salary. He is also president of a construction company, R. Brown Realty Group.

The only gracious words he heard from the Democrats on his first day were from the Speaker’s rostrum in the Assembly Chamber.

“Assemblymember Brown, welcome to the New York State Assembly. You are now part of this family as you have obviously shown that you can handle family,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Jeffrion Aubry (D-Corona, Queens). We hope that your time here will be successful and that you will always know that the Assembly will be your home forever.”

After lawmakers gave Brown a perfunctory standing ovation, Aubry chimed in with a quick quip.

“As I always tell every new member this will be the last time that they get up and cheer for you.”

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