By Dan Rivoli
Candidates running to replace Eric Schneiderman in the State Senate laid out their plans to bring reform to a dysfunctional legislative body and constituent services to a geographically large, diverse district.
Adriano Espaillat, Mark Levine, Anna Lewis and Miosotis Muñoz sat with the West Side Spirit to discuss their agenda and why they are the best candidate to represent a district that spans the Upper West Side, northern Manhattan and parts of the Bronx.
Espaillat is an Assembly member running in a year where the theme in Albany’s legislative races is “throw the bums out.” But Espaillat embraces the 14 years he has spent in the Assembly.
“I have a strong record, one that I’m very proud of,” Espaillat said.
He touts his legislative record in the Assembly and the constituent work he does in his district, which covers Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill.
In Albany, he supported congestion pricing and co-sponsored pro-tenant housing legislation. In his district, he takes credit for boosting enrollment in CUNY and assisting constituents with landlord problems.
In the State Senate, he wants to help West Siders with similar housing issues, ensure marriage equality is passed in New York and help designate West End Avenue as a landmark district.
For this State Senate race, Espaillat has tapped support from Upper West Side elected officials. Schneiderman endorsed him as his successor in the State Senate. Rosenthal and Borough President Scott Stringer, an Upper West Side resident, also support Espaillat. He also has labor endorsements, including most recently the teachers union endorsement.
Even though the support of incumbent politicians might turn off voters sick of Albany, Espaillat boasts of his reform credentials by co-sponsoring Schneiderman’s ethics legislation, supporting independent redistricting of legislative seats and an independent commission to police the Legislature.
He pushed back against claims from his opponents—chiefly Mark Levine—that he will not deliver on reforming the State Senate.
“If anybody sits here and tells you, ‘I’m Don Quixote, I will kill the windmill, and I will reform Albany single-handedly,’ they’re lying to you,” Espaillat said. “It’s going to take some consensus building and someone that really knows the institution and won’t walk around for two years looking for the bathroom.”
But Levine believes voters want a new perspective from their state senator, even if it means looking for the bathroom.
“I see this seat—the Schneiderman seat—as actually a part of a statewide strategy for bringing change,” Levine said. “This seat has to stay in the hands of someone who is independent, aggressive, progressive and reform minded.”
To Levine, there needs to be campaign finance reform before progressive legislation can pass. For example, without public financing of campaigns, state lawmakers are influenced by contributions from industry groups, which killed initiatives like the soda tax or gun control.
As for Espaillat’s support of reform measures as an Assembly member, Levine called them “fig leafs.”
“Very, very weak proposals for reform have won some traction in Assembly and people are running on them as proof of their credentials as reformers,” Levine said. “But they’re pretty easy to see through.”
He also criticized Espaillat after the New York Post reported that a nonprofit the Assembly member funds hired his political allies.
Levine, a Washington Heights resident, won a Democratic district leader position in 2007. In that unpaid party position, he supported and organized for Barack Obama’s presidential primary campaign against New York’s favorite daughter, Hillary Clinton. He turned that network of supporters into the Barack Obama Democratic Club uptown.
His campaign is backed by Democratic clubs and fellow district leaders in the Upper West Side. His campaign was also endorsed by Ronnie Eldridge, a former West Side Council member, and Ruth Messinger, also a former West Side Council member, borough president and 1997 Democratic nominee for mayor.
Outside of politics, Levine, a former educator, was the executive director of Teach For America and a nonprofit that trained staff for after-school programs. He also started a community credit union that gave loans to small businesses.
In the district, he wants to help constituents navigate a difficult state government, which has authority over health, housing and transit issues.
“The legislative battle in Albany, day to day, is incredibly important,” Levine said. “But it doesn’t always touch people’s lives in the way solving a landlord dispute or getting them resources they need from the state would.”
Anna Lewis, an attorney, is the only Upper West Side resident in the race. She is running on her state government experience but says she doesn’t have the baggage of being an incumbent legislator in Albany.
As former counsel to the Assembly’s oversight and investigation committee, she helped draft legislation and reports on abuses from trade schools and contractors that underpaid union workers.
Being a prosecutor in the state’s Health Department, Lewis wants to pass laws that inform consumers of their rights. She wants to make it mandatory for doctor’s offices to have a sign that tells patients they can file a claim online.
“Most people don’t know that exists,” she said. “Being an attorney means I know about the law. I’ve done regulatory law. I know how to read the law, draft the law and that’s a big part of being a legislator.”
Lewis is the only attorney in the race and believes she can be as effective a state senator as Schneiderman, who was a public interest lawyer before entering politics.
Lewis, a former Democratic district leader, said she has community organizing experience like Levine and a legislative background like Espaillat.
“I bring both those things together,” Lewis said. “And I include my experience as a lawyer for the past 25 years.”
Miosotis Muñoz, a former aide to Rep. Charles Rangel and former borough presidents C. Virginia Fields and Messinger, says that, as a parent, she wants to tackle identity theft and Internet predators.
She plans to improve transportation options for seniors and educate them on the rent increase exemption.
“I’d like to give an extra legislative push making sure that there’s enough senior housing,” she said.
Muñoz wants to help immigrants get on a path to citizenship.
For gay rights, she supports same sex marriage but believes there is a lack of attention on hate crimes and bias attacks.