Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Aug 14, 2023
A conversation with State Senator Zellnor Myrie
The state senator discusses his five years in office, picking his battles, the concerns of his constituents and Jay-Z
This week on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” we’re speaking with State Senator Zellnor Myrie, who represents District 20, in the very center of the borough, encompassing the neighborhoods of Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens (where Myrie grew up) and Windsor Terrace.
While some listeners may glaze over at the idea of a conversation with a state senator, we do try to keep things interesting and lively. Over the course of his three terms, Myrie has been engaged in topics that are deeply relevant to many of his constituents, from affordable housing to gun violence and more.
“It would come as a surprise to many people that it’s really the state statutes and state regulations that govern a lot of the important policy conversations we have,” he says. “Whether that is public safety reforms to our criminal legal system, advances in mitigating climate change, and certainly in housing, there is great power that the state has to affect what happens to us in these spaces.”
Here, we discuss all of that, plus his upbringing and his political awakening. Running for public office was never really part of the plan.
“I was convinced that there was too many bureaucrats, that there were too many people out for themselves,” he says. “It just wasn’t my vibe.”
Myrie is the first generation American son of Costa Rican immigrants and native Brooklynite. We talk about growing up in Flatbush. Fun fact: part of his origin story involves being the lone boy on his middle school step team. We dig into serious issues, too, like possible solutions to the city’s housing crunch, illegal guns, the chief concerns of his constituents, the state budget mess and why it matters, and on a personal note, the effect of being pepper sprayed by NYPD during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
Naturally, we also talk about Jay-Z. It’s an engaging and thoughtful conversation with one of the borough’s young and dynamic leaders.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, which airs as an episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” edited for clarity and, to a lesser extent, concision. Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
You grew up in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, which would’ve been probably more familiar then to you and to us as Flatbush. Talk about the neighborhood then compared to now. You’re not that old, you’re not even 40, but there have been changes since your childhood.
I actually grew up literally on Flatbush Avenue. When someone told me that I was in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, I was like, “Nah, we’re in Flatbush. I’m looking up at the sign right now.” This is where my mom moved to about 45 years ago as she immigrated from Costa Rica, and she worked in a factory actually out in Greenpoint but lived in Flatbush. I was born in 1986, and that means I was in elementary school during the Crown Heights riots. I actually went to school in Crown Heights, and I went to PS 161.
One of the most stark changes obviously has been demographic in the neighborhood, in my building, which I still live in, that I’ve been in since I was 6 years old. In that building, it used to be overwhelmingly, if not universally, Black and Caribbean tenants. And now we are in the minority. There are more white tenants in my building than anything else, and that’s not to cast dispersion on any one of them individually, but that I think is reflective of what many people have felt and have seen in the neighborhood since our childhood.
The big stat that made the rounds after the last census was that Bed-Stuy alone lost 22,000 Black residents and gained 30,000 white residents in 10 years, which speaks to a lot of issues around affordability, gentrification, resentment, safe spaces, all of that. Do you remember the Crown Heights riots? Were you aware that they were happening, or were you just going to school and oblivious?
So I had no clue what was going on around us and certainly didn’t have an appreciation for the magnitude of what the implications were for what was happening. I did feel the omnipresence of the NYPD. That is something that I recall pretty starkly. And I used to walk home from school. I would walk down Nostrand Avenue and make the right on Empire Boulevard and walk down to Flatbush. And on that walk home, there would be many, many, many police officers, but there was also a lot of gang activity and what some folks like to refer to as the bad old days in the city.
There were times where I would tuck my big blue winter coat in my book bag, even during the winter in the cold, afraid of what the Crips were going to do when they saw me in that blue jacket. These were things that unfortunately we thought were normal. This is just the neighborhoods that we grew up in. This is the life that we were exposed to. So I remember those aspects of being in elementary school and the environment, but not the Crown Heights riot in great detail.
So how would you describe yourself as a kid? Obviously super bright, first-generation American. Were both of your parents from Costa Rica?
Yeah, both of my parents from Costa Rica. For those who don’t know, all of the Black people in Costa Rica are Caribbean descendants. It’s actually was part of the building of the railroads in Costa Rica. They brought in a lot of former slaves from Jamaica who had just been emancipated to come do the work. And they went to Costa Rica, began to build the railroads, and built entire lives and never left. And so in some of those towns you’ll see people that look like me and my parents who eat rice and beans and listen to salsa, but also eat jerk chicken and listen to Soca. That’s where my family comes from. So they settled in the Caribbean enclave of Central Brooklyn because they felt at home with their other fellow Caribbean folks. And that’s really what led my family to the area.
It’s interesting that you said that because I was looking into the meaning of your name, and Myrie is actually very common name in Jamaica and it means “born to lead.” Did you know that?
I actually did not know that. So here I am learning. I knew that famous reggae artists, perhaps one of the most famous, Buju Banton, is a Myrie from Jamaica. That was my first, like, “Oh wow, I have Jamaican ancestry.” That’s when I started doing some research, but I did not know that it meant born to lead.
I’ve read you’ve had asthma, eczema, which not easy for a kid, immigrant parents, you’re in Flatbush. What were you like? What were you into?
You mentioned some of the health challenges I had then, [which informed] a lot of the health policy stuff that I do now. But yeah, I grew up a pretty sick kid. I had asthma, I had eczema. I spent many, many nights in Kings County Hospital under admission because of my asthma and various other health challenges. But I was a generally happy kid. I’m my mom’s only child. So make whatever extrapolations you want onto only-child syndrome, seeking a profession where it’s about attention and acting those things out. But I was also a really avid reader. My mom used to make me go to the Central Library by Grand Army Plaza every day after school. Part of that was her belief in the foundational purposes of education, but also my mom was very clear that she could not help me with my homework and that if I did not pay attention and put in the work myself, that I was going to have a hard time.
So I was kind of a nerd, read a lot. I was a big “Goosebumps” fan. I had the entire series in the house and I think some of those principles and characteristics of reading and discipline have helped me become who I am today. I guess the fun fact that most people would not guess is in my middle school, I was the only boy on the step team. And this was a formative experience for me as well because I remember getting clowned by all of the other guys, like, “Oh, Z, you’re on the step team. Isn’t that a girl activity?” Et cetera. And then we had the first performance in front of the middle school and when my part came up as the only guy and the crowd goes crazy and all the girls go crazy, a bunch of the boys wanted to sign up to be on the step team then. That was pretty cool.
You go to Fordham, you study communications, you have a master’s in urban studies and a law degree from Cornell. What’s the decision behind that trajectory: comms, urban studies, law? We can talk about that as a way to get into your political coming of age.
I didn’t grow up around lawyers, so didn’t really hold ambitions to be a lawyer. When I got to college, I covered the basketball team for both of the school papers. I went to Fordham as you mentioned for undergrad. So I thought I was going to be a sportscaster. That’s what I really wanted to do. I wanted to be on ESPN, thought that that was what my future was going to hold. I interned for WCBS the year in ’09, the Giants won the Super Bowl. I got to be in the locker room, and I was so enamored with the entire scene. And then I graduate from college in 2008 and I take a community service trip to South Africa, and I spent almost a month out there with the American Red Cross and some other faith-based organizations, building things, planting gardens, really trying to be of service. And it changed my entire perspective on what I wanted to do with my life and with my talent. And I came back to the States freshly into the Great Recession of 2008.
I got laid off in 2008. It was a tough year or two.
It was a tough time, but it was also an inspiring time if you were a young person because that’s the year that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. And for many of us in that generation, it showed us that, well, perhaps there’s a path in public service and that we can make a difference in this arena that up until now, we had thought was just full of dirty tactics and shady characters. So I started volunteering for a local community board at the time in the Bronx near Fordham University, and I was going to everything. I didn’t have a job. I was going to every single meeting. I was doing some of the grunt work that other people didn’t want to do. And the chair of the community board ended up getting hired by someone who had just won for the city council.
He asked me if I wanted to come on and intern. I said, “I don’t have a job. I’m not doing anything else. I would love to take the opportunity to see how city government works.” And that internship quickly turned into full-time employment. I became the press and legislative director for the city council member. And then after some time there, I was convinced that I didn’t want to do politics. I was convinced that there were too many bureaucrats, that there were too many people out for themselves. It just wasn’t my vibe, as the kids would say. So I went to grad school to further my education and perhaps figure out how to serve in another way, and one class in my urban studies program was land-use law. And it was in land-use law where I saw the connections to the legal academy and the impacts that knowing the law could have on helping everyday people. And that’s when I decided to go to law school and was fortunate enough to get into Cornell Law School. And I guess the rest is history, as they say.
Well, yes and no. Out of law school, you didn’t necessarily go into public service. You go to work at a white shoe law firm. Obviously you’re doing pro bono work on the side, but what galvanizes you to go from white shoe, probably making a nice salary, to “I’m going to run”?
I was an associate at a law firm called Davis Polk and Wardwell in the city. I remember about a year into being an associate, this is the most money I’ve ever made or seen ever in my entire life. And I go to my mom, and I say, “I’m thinking about leaving this prestigious high-paying position to maybe have a chance to serve in the state legislature for orders of magnitude lower of a salary.” And she said, “Are you crazy? You can remain here. You can continue to do some pro bono work on the side. You can contribute to your community in other ways. Stay on this track.” And what I communicated to her and what was a reflection of my own internal conversations at the time was, if I unfortunately passed away tomorrow, would I be satisfied with what I am giving to the world on that day?
And I had found that I cannot answer that question in the affirmative post-2016, seeing Donald Trump elected and sitting in despair about what impact I was having on my neighborhood and in my community. And at the time, the rent regulation laws were about to be renewed in 2019. And I had lived in a rent regulated apartment since I was 5 years old. My mother’s story, the story of many of the constituents I serve now would not be possible without rent regulation. And the person who was representing us at the time I felt had turned their backs on tenants and had taken a lot of money from real estate.
This is Jesse Hamilton?
That’s right. Let me say for the record now that I have no personal animus with Jesse now and when I see him, it’s all love now. But at the time, I felt that we needed stronger representation, particularly with these laws coming up for renewal in 2019. So that’s when I decided, let me explore what this would look like. And I remember having these preliminary conversations with folks about wanting to run and I had all these ideas. And they said, “Ah, that’s all good, but can you raise $100,000?” And I’m like, “Raise $100,000? I’d have to do that in two months.” And they were like, “No one’s going to listen to you unless you raise that amount of money so that you can have the resources to get your message out.” And luckily, I was at a white shoe law firm and many of my classmates were also at white shoe law firms and I knew exactly how much money they were making.
We also had great excitement post the election of Donald Trump. This was the first election that was going to be happening after 2016. So we actually had a lot of grassroots support, a lot of small contributions because people wanted to feel involved, wanted to do something. And we were able to raise the money and people started taking us seriously and that’s when you saw some more endorsements and people getting on board. And ultimately we prevailed and we are now in my fifth year in office and it is the longest job that I’ve held in my entire life.
A lot of it’s about timing, it sounds like. These rent regulation laws were coming to a head and it would’ve happened after the election. And then you were talking about the incumbent who you were probably fortunate in that he engendered some disgruntlement among his constituents for basically flipping to Republican and you were able to capitalize on the voter resentment around the Independent Democratic Caucus. So it was really like stars sort of aligning for you. Is that fair?
Timing is everything in life, and this was certainly no exception. I’ll add another anecdote that I haven’t spoken about publicly until this podcast. I was able to secure a federal clerkship for a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York right here in Brooklyn. I, of course, immediately say yes and felt pretty good about where my career stood.
I was going to graduate from a pretty good law school, work at one of the top law firms in the world and then have a federal clerkship after two years at the firm to then go on and do some public service things that I really wanted to do. And the problem was you know what else was happening in September of 2018? The election for state senate and the legislature. So I could not do both. And it was a fork in the road where I had to choose whether to continue on this path or take a chance to serve the very community that had raised me and that deserved the right type of representation. And I’m grateful that I made the right choice. But had I lost, I would’ve left my job, I would’ve forfeited the clerkship, and who knows what I’d be doing now.
Fortunately we don’t have to wonder about that. So yeah, you were galvanized to run by these rent regulation laws and you win the election, and in 2019, you’re a state senator. And a day before the laws are set to expire, you actually get the rent regulation laws through. You’ve said in a previous interview, I believe, that the housing crisis that we’re currently experiencing and have been experienced has been created mostly by state legislature. Can you explain that?
I think it would come as a surprise to many people that it’s really the state statutes and state regulations that govern a lot of the important policy conversations we have, whether that is public safety reforms to our criminal legal system, advances in mitigating climate change, and certainly in housing there is great power that the state has to affect what happens to us in these spaces. And on housing we have an outsize role because our rent laws are guided by the state and we are a city of renters. Two-thirds of New York City rents. That’s regardless of whether it’s regulated. We have over a million people living in rent regulated units. What used to happen in Albany was they would set these laws to expire after a couple of years and so typically in four-to-six-year increments to set up a fight each time and to not have any stability in perpetuity that they could not challenge.
And what we saw was prior to 2019, the Republicans had control of the New York State Senate for the better part of a century, close to 80 years. And when the Democrats assumed the majority in 2019, this was one of the number one things we wanted to address because for the better part of a century, the housing laws had been dictated by the real estate industry. The real estate industry was one of the largest contributors to legislators in New York and also wielded their influence in other ways. And the reason that they spent so generously on contributing to legislators’ campaigns was that they knew that Albany was where the juice was. Whether it was the regulation of rents, whether it was tax credits that go to developers to build quote, unquote affordable housing, whether it is the enforcement of those laws by our state agency, the state is really a big actor and can be a big player in the provision of affordable housing, the preservation of it and the enforcement of our laws to protect tenants and property owners. But for a long time, this was dominated by their influence. And then in 2019, we were able to successfully mitigate some of that influence.
What we have seen since is a resurgence of their attempt to influence the conversation. So this isn’t to impugn every developer, property owner. There are a lot of them who are trying to do the right thing, who want to build truly affordable housing, who want to protect their tenants. But we know the lobbying arms of the industry have spent a lot of money on attacking tenant protection and to getting as many tax breaks as possible in a way that allows them to build the least amount of affordable housing to keep their profit margins healthy. So the state legislature now is in a conversation about what they can do to further protect tenants, but to also spur development. What we saw this past legislative session was an impasse because there were parties and stakeholders who did not want to compromise and who did not want to increase protections for tenants and allow for more incentives for developers. And I’m a firm believer that we have to do both.
There is a high demand. We do need to build, but we have to build in a way that allows for the people in our communities to afford it. We spoke earlier on this podcast about the changes that we’ve seen in our neighborhoods. And if you go to the top of Flatbush, if you’re at Flatbush and Empire Boulevard and you look straight down and to your right is Prospect Park and to the left is the [Brooklyn Botanic] Garden, you can see the towers go up all the way up Flatbush. I never could see that growing up. I could never see big development, if I turned around and looked the other way going south on Flatbush and we can’t afford to live here.
I have constituents come to me all the time to say, “How is it that we see all these glossy new buildings? How are they building these and for who are they building it?” And I think that is another policy area that the state has province over and where we have to do better to both incentivize building but ensure that the people who are in the communities that already exist had the opportunity to be there as well.
It’s interesting that you say there was an impasse because you mentioned the Republican Party dominating for 80 years in Albany. You’re in the fortunate position now of having a Democrat-dominated Senate and Assembly and a Democrat governor. Do you have a sense of how easy that’s made things for you to advance your agenda? How do you choose what to prioritize?
What we saw was over that 80 year period, a lot of progressive priorities not able to get through because they weren’t even coming up for a vote. The Democrats assume control, we got through a big backlog of those progressive priorities in our first couple of years in the Senate. So some folks may recall back in 2019, we were passing things like the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which was the most aggressive climate change state level legislation in the entire country. We were codifying Roe v. Wade back in 2019 before we saw what happened with the Supreme Court earlier this year. We were advancing changes to our criminal legal system, a lot of things that had been bottled up. But now that the backlog has been cleared, I think we are getting to tougher policy questions where there isn’t as much unity even in the same party as many folks might believe.
And the housing, I think, represents one of those issues where there is a spectrum of beliefs about how we should be attacking the problem. Everyone acknowledges the problem, everyone knows what the problem is, everyone knows how acute the problem is, yet there isn’t broad agreement on some of the solutions. And I think what we’re seeing now and what was on full display in the legislative session was us asking some of the hard questions like should the suburbs bear some of the responsibility for building affordable housing? Should everybody in the state, regardless of whether you are an urban, rural or suburban district, have some skin in the game to provide housing for all of us? These are questions that weren’t being asked in the past because we weren’t having the housing discussion period. But now that we’re in the mix, I think it’s really important that we do it and do it with haste. Because in the interim, as you mentioned earlier, Brian, we have people leaving the state being pushed out of the state simply because they can’t afford to live here.
Is that where you land? Do you think that everyone in the state has skin in the game when it comes to affordable housing? Where do you land on that?
One thousand percent. We all bear the responsibility. And what we have seen unfortunately in the past is that some communities are not going to build, they are not going to welcome affordable housing unless they are forced to. And we’ve seen lawsuits happen throughout the state that have forced that hand. We’ve seen that out in Long Island. We’ve seen that in Westchester. We’ve seen that further upstate. And let me also state that there are housing crises upstate as well in the Adirondacks and in some of these rural areas. There was a massive exodus from the city during the pandemic, and that created market pressures in these more rural places in the state that pushed out the residents that were there. So they are experiencing what we have experienced down here in Brooklyn, but in a slightly different variation. All of us bear the responsibility. And I think we have a beautiful state where a lot of people want to live and should want to live and we should be welcoming them with open arms.
I would imagine another one of these issues that is probably polarizing within your own party would be a pet issue of yours, which is criminal legal reform. Your district is not monolithic. What do you hear most often from your constituents?
It’s an important point to make about the district being diverse and not monolithic, but people hold different views depending on where they are and what their world experience has been. Broadly there has been support for the changes that we’ve made to the criminal legal system. People recognize the inherent unfairness in our justice system and recognize that we have to use every tool at our disposal to help rectify that. But I also have heard from constituents who attribute all of our crime and all of their feelings of danger and not feeling safe to what we did in the state. And those are more difficult conversations to have because the data doesn’t support that assertion. But what is data when you don’t feel safe on the subway? Data means nothing to you if you’re walking down the street and you don’t feel safe. It’s irrelevant.
I try to broaden the conversation to say that it’s not just a law enforcement role, though they have a role. It’s not just a role for our courts and our DAs, though they have a role, but the government should be creating the conditions where crime is the least attractive option for any New Yorker and that the consequences match what the action is.
Well, just to get super specific, there’s the issue of gun violence. And in New York City alone, shootings [shot] up 257 percent [after the pandemic,] according to one stat that I read. [Shooting rates are more recently on the decline.] It does rip at our communities on a daily basis. You’re hearing from community members. The NYPD likes to point the finger at laws passed by the legislature, like bail reform, as a contributing factor. This is maybe super specific, but this just underscores how tangled this issue gets. How do you respond to that specifically?
There are probably few issues that I have fought more vigorously on than gun violence because of what you’re pointing out, Brian. It is ubiquitous. It is in some areas increasing. And I’ll note that when we do the comparisons, we’re often comparing to pre-pandemic levels because the pandemic shifted what we can assess and attribute solely to particular factors and not the pandemic. But on gun violence, this is our number one issue that we fought on and we’ve done a couple of things. One, in 2021 we passed something called the Community Violence Intervention Act, which said that the state is responsible for allocating at least $10 million a year to hospital- and community-based intervention programs. We know some of these programs here in Brooklyn. You’ve probably seen the bright colored shirts at different events with groups that do violence intervention and prevention.
We also have hospitals that do this work where a shooting victim comes in. There are also workers there to help ease any tensions in the ER if people want to escalate. And we know that that type of work reduces the amount of shootings, reduces the amount of violence. And we saw in some of the precincts that I represent, that it started trending down some of the shootings. And I’m not going to wholly attribute that to what we passed, but I’d like to think that us investing state resources into intervention and prevention was helpful.
But we also passed a first-in-the-nation law to hold the gun industry accountable. And this is one of the things I am most proud of because when we would hear from our mothers of victims, our families, our community members, they would always ask, “Where are these guns coming from?” We don’t manufacture guns in Brooklyn in any serious way. We don’t have major gun retail stores in Brooklyn, yet there’s such easy access to these firearms and these illegal weapons. So we passed a bill that said, if you are a member of the gun industry, here are some protocols and procedures you should be following to prevent your legal product from making its way to the illegal market. And the people thought we couldn’t get this across the finish line. We passed it, then Delaware passed it, then California passed it, New Jersey passed it, Colorado passed it, Washington passed it, and Maryland is contemplating it now.
What we are seeing is a recognition that everybody has a role to play in stymieing gun violence. It’s not just the person that pulls the trigger. They should be held accountable of course, but there were many steps that happened before that person pulled it. So, let’s hold everyone accountable. Let’s invest the resources that are necessary.
So, what impact did that have on holding the gun industry accountable? Has there been enough time to measure any decrease in illegal gun ownership or how do you quantify that?
That’s a great question, and it impacted a few things. One, the gun industry before the law took effect, sued us preemptively to say that the law was unconstitutional. Last year, a judge in Albany, in the northern District of New York rejected every single one of the gun industry’s claims, upheld the law as constitutional. And a few weeks after that court ruling, the mayor of the city of New York and the Attorney General sued eight ghost gun companies using our very law. And until now, six out of eight of those companies had settled out of court to stop production and to shut down business. So we have seen, in a very real way, this law’s effect on keeping guns off the street. It shut down six ghost gun companies that were flooding our streets with the component parts to make weapons.
Now we are still in litigation. The gun industry appealed that trial-court decision, and we are awaiting oral argument for that. I think that’s going to be happening in the fall. But we have seen other cities in the state of New York use our law to sue the gun companies as well. Buffalo brought a lawsuit against members of the gun industry, as did Syracuse, as did Rochester. And so the law is being used in creating, I think, the appropriate amount of pressure so that bad actors in the gun industry are on notice.
And to circle back what I asked earlier about bail reform being pointed to as a cause of gun violence uptick, is that a straw man argument? How do you respond to that? Because I know that you’re a proponent of bail reform.
It’s always important I do a little pallet cleanser when we talk about bail, but first, the purpose of bail is not to give a consequence to an individual for an action. The purpose of bail is to ensure someone’s return to court. We have to remember that in our system, people are presumed innocent until proven otherwise. And this is meant as a process to allow for the adjudication to continue.
“Until proven otherwise,” or until coerced to plead guilty, which is another issue.
Which is a whole other podcast. So you have bail set. Even after every change we made to those laws, an individual carrying a gun, an individual who is alleged to have committed a crime with a gun would be going through the same process that they would have pre-bail reform. So there has never been a connection between the changes we made and what people who carry weapons and fire weapons, what their consequences would be. So this was really, I think, playing on the trauma of gun violence. The research says that even hearing gunshots… Someone was shot on my block three weeks ago and we all just sort of like, “Hey, did you hear that last night?” And everyone was like, “Yep.” And people just carry on like it’s normal. Even hearing gunshots has residual traumatic impacts. People are using that for, I think, political purposes. There has never been a connection between the two, and that’s why I try to focus on real solutions for gun violence and not some of the what I think hysteria has been created around it.
You have mentioned the pandemic a couple of times. Your tenure obviously has been marked by the pandemic, the social upheaval in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. You yourself were pepper sprayed in 2020 during a demonstration. You were out there walking the walk with your constituents. I wonder if you can talk about that experience and how it might have changed or reinforced your approach to the job.
This was a tough thing to live through, Brian, not just because it’s tough to get pepper sprayed, but the conditions under which it took place. We were fresh off of seeing a Black man murdered on a video. We were still in the midst of this once-in-a-century pandemic. We still felt it important to go out and protest and have our voices heard because of how deep the systemic racism has been in our country. Now, I go out there not just as a Black man who has grown up in this country, but also as the state senator that has relationships with law enforcement and who could have provided a liaison-like relationship between the folks who were out there and the police officers. And in fact, that’s why I went out.
You weren’t in disguise or anything. You were very clearly labeled as a senator.
Clearly labeled, and that was intentional. I was initially going to go out in all black, and I said, “Let me wear something prominent, recognizable so that if anything goes down, people will know who I am. Not in a pompous way, but in a way to calm down any lively spirits and to help us exercise our constitutional rights without being harassed.” And of course, that’s not what happened. It’s a difficult thing to revisit because the world saw what happened and the picture of me, which is hard for me to look at, but which remains in the ether and comes up pretty often, even if I’m just randomly scrolling on IG because someone likes the picture from three years ago. That was painful to see because what am I going to tell my constituents? “Go out, be a law-abiding citizen, go out and listen to what the cops have to say?”
“You’ll be safe if you go out.”
“You’ll be safe, cooperate.” That to me was one of the bigger tragedies. I, of course, did not enjoy being pepper sprayed and put in handcuffs, but for my credibility to the community to say, “Let’s continue to do the right thing and to foster as great a partnership as we can,” it made that part of my job much more difficult. Again, not because I don’t believe in partnership and not because I don’t believe that there are members of law enforcement trying to do the right thing, but because my constituents saw me get pepper sprayed. And if that’s their state senator, how are they going to feel when they are in a similar circumstance? And so it was important for us to sue to vindicate our constitutional rights. That was the appropriate way to conclude this saga in my life.
But I have continued to try to encourage people to be as transparent and open-minded with dealing with law enforcement as possible because there are individuals there that I think are trying to do the right thing. But it most certainly impacted my ability as a state senator to communicate to my community that you can trust this relationship.
Related to that, there was a quote of yours from the beginning of Black History Month this past February, where you called out “the systems in our country that continue to harm, continue to deprive, continue to suppress the beauty and magic of being Black.” What policy solutions at the state level can address these systemic inequities? How do you pick your battles because there’s no shortage of them? How do you prioritize?
There is no shortage, and I try as best I can to elevate the issues that my constituents are elevating to me. Of course, when I’m down here, I try my best to be outside so that I can hear directly from people. So if you look at the things that we’ve done over the past five years in the legislature, they track pretty well with the top issues in my district. So housing, we’ve already discussed. The number one issue that the people come in and talk to me about and often across all of these policy areas, Black and brown people are disproportionately affected.
When you look at what we’ve done around gun violence, that’s something that comes from my community. When you look at the recently passing something called a Clean Slate Act, which would automatically seal certain criminal conviction records to allow people to apply for jobs, housing, education. That’s because I know a lot of folks in my district who don’t want to be on the streets, who don’t want to be involved in wayward activity, but they cannot get a job job and they cannot get housing because of a criminal conviction. When you look at what we’ve done, even around Covid, we’ve passed something called the Covid Fraud Accountability Act. During the height of the pandemic, we remember in Brooklyn, all of these pop-up Covid shops, pop-up places guaranteeing Covid results saying that they would be free, then surprise billing constituents, scamming people, never giving them their results. We passed a bill that would increase the civil penalties for that type of activity. And just two weeks ago, the attorney general settled with CareCube, one of those pop-up shops, using some of the elements of our law.
I try to figure out what my role as a state legislator is for that particular policy area, and I go after it. But I think you’re pointing at something that is true in that there’s a finite capacity and you can’t tackle every single issue and you can’t give your all to every single issue. So sometimes I have spirited conversations with constituents who say, “Why haven’t you done this on that?” And I respond with, “I’m trying and we’re going to be able to get to that, but we can only do so much as one office.” We are in the legislative body with 62 other members in the Senate and over a hundred in the Assembly. So it takes consensus building, that takes time. And so I would urge some patience on certain issues, but generally I try to do whatever I’m hearing the most about.
What has been most surprising to you in your three terms so far?
I was aware of the public nature of the job and the requirements of having to be on. I was not aware of the 24/7 nature of that having to be on. When you run for office, you run because you’re galvanized by some particular movement or policy. You rarely think about what the effect on your personal life is going to be. That is something that has also been surprising for me. This is something that I don’t think a lot of us, and when I say us, I mean those of us in public office that we don’t talk about and we’re not open about. This is a really difficult life for you as a person and for the people that you love, your friends, your family.
Your fiancée, you’ve mentioned you’re engaged.
Your fiancée. There are just demands on your time that are unique and unusual. And if you are not intentional about protecting yourself, you’re going to lose it. I had a really hard time finding therapy. As a state senator with pretty good health insurance from the state, when I was going on my initial journey of trying to figure out, all right, I want this type of therapist, it took me a very long time to do that. And I thought, well, if it’s not easy for me, it most certainly it’s not easy for my constituents. And we have that mental health component of being in office of always having to be on, always thinking about how you can help others. We sign up for that, so I’m not complaining about that component. But I was surprised at how little attention and time I was paying to myself, and it’s something that I’m actively working on trying to get through as we speak.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli painted a bleak fiscal future for New York in a report last month estimating a budget gap of $36.4 billion by 2027, higher state spending, lower tax collection, increased Medicaid enrollment, the end of federal pandemic era funding. How do you read that report?
On one hand, grim. That’s not the kind of report that gives you much hope about what our next budget process is going to look like. But I also think it’s an opportunity, and here’s why I say that. Every time we are looking at budget shortfalls, the instinct has been from those in power, to cut services, to cut the fat, so to speak. The “fat” always happens to be services that Black and brown communities need the most. And I’m always given pause when we start predicting doom and gloom for our budgets because it is quickly followed by “We need to cut hospital services, we need to cut other social services,” things that we depend on and that we need. I happen to believe that there are other services or other areas rather that we should be looking at to cut. We waste a lot of money in state government.
One of the areas that we waste a lot of money in is in incarcerating people. We spend close to $80,000 a year per person that we incarcerate. And right now we have individuals that are sitting in our correctional facilities all over the state. We’re paying $80,000 a year for them, and they pose zero threat to anyone inside that correctional facility. Or they would pose zero threat to anyone outside back home in the community. We should look at how we can be saving costs there.
We spend a lot of money on quote, unquote “economic development” that oftentimes just works as a slush fund for folks who are in control. We’ve seen that too many times. We’ve seen too many scandals of us doling out taxpayer dollars for development only to get two jobs in return for that investment. So I would warn my colleagues that any budget shortfall that we are looking at and that’s coming down the line should be not just an opportunity for us to be austere and to cut the services that make us vibrant and help us survive but also to look at the waste in government that we spend both in the mass incarceration context and in the economic development context such that we can maintain the services that we really need.
I do know that finding justice for wrongfully convicted people is a big topic for yours as well. You’ve passed legislation on that front to streamline the process for their, I guess, appeal. Is that accurate?
That’s exactly right. And right now, if you are innocent, but you pled guilty because you were coerced, as you mentioned earlier in the podcast, you have no mechanism to claim your innocence. This law would change that, would give you the mechanism to do that, and hopefully provide the path to some legal help to claim the innocence. We’re third in the country, New York is, in wrongfully convicting individuals. So we got to change that. And it speaks to my earlier point about innocent people sitting in jail, taxpayers are paying for that innocent person to sit in prison. That should not be. It is a moral imperative but also an economic one.
We’re talking on the day before hip-hop’s official 50th anniversary, August 11th, today’s the 10th. This won’t come out until next week, but can you shout out any major artist songs, albums pivotal to your childhood, your go-to gym jams?
So the Central Library is in my district and I went to “The Book of HOV” the week that it opened. And for me, Jay-Z’s my favorite artist of all time. In many ways provided the soundtrack to my childhood, my teenage life. And I’m just really geeked that he’s from Brooklyn, that the display’s in my district, and that we get to celebrate that type of greatness. We get to see ourselves in that. I’m a huge Jay-Z fan, so I got to shout that out. I love music, man. I love hip-hop so much. I could talk about this forever.
I passed the resolution in the state senate celebrating and commemorating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. We also did a sneaker day in Albany that was intrinsically tied to hip-hop culture. And we had Democrats, Republicans, staff members, the custodial staff, everybody had their kicks on. And it was a really great moment because it showed your flare and showed your flash exactly like what hip-hop does and what it gives us the outlet to do. So I really try to bring as much of that to the job as possible. And part of why I wear sneakers, even in my suits and even on the chamber, is to have people never forget where I’m from and who I’m representing.
Do you have any places when you’re walking around your district favorite restaurants, places you got to shout out or back from your childhood in Flatbush where you got to go pick something up?
Yeah, no, a thousand percent. And particularly because we are in the Labor Day season. We are in the festival season, and the whiff of jerk chicken is floating all throughout Little Caribbean. So you’ve got to go to Peppa’s. If you are coming to Brooklyn to celebrate the Caribbean, please go get you some jerk chicken from Peppa’s.
You might also like
An ode to ‘Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast’
Arts & Leisure
Arts & Leisure
An ode to ‘Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast’
5 Fragrances That Should Be In Your Beauty Regimen