City Council Member Gale Brewer is, of course, a politician. By many accounts, she’s also a skilled magician, having mastered the art of being in several places at the same time. Brewer’s most marked characteristic as an Upper West Side elected official is that she is seemingly everywhere.
Those who have worked closely with her slip easily into hyperbolic statements attesting to this uncanny ability, but many people are unaware that Brewer has managed to do this while helping to raise dozens of children.
Brewer, 61, has taken in many foster children with her husband, Cal Snyder. They’ve had 35 kids over the years and have adopted several children, now grown. Brewer said that’s one of the reasons she feels so connected to the community.
“I have a long history with all kinds of people,” she said. “I know all the young people. That gives me entree into a whole group of people and their families. [My former foster children] all live on the West Side, most of them, still.”
“I’ve always thought of Gale Brewer as a magical force,” said Mel Wymore, former chairperson of Community Board 7. “She can be in five places at the same time, pass groundbreaking bills while responding to thousands of constituents each day, and she seems to know every person—and pet—on the planet.”
“She is everywhere, managing to appear at, and contribute to, more meetings in an evening than most of us can squeeze into a month,” said Mark Diller, the current chair of the board.
The exaggeration is only slight. Brewer regularly appears at community board meetings, town halls, nonprofit events, fundraisers, artistic gatherings and parties. Where some would send staff members in their stead, Brewer goes herself, often simply to make announcements, say hello and listen to constituents before moving on to the next event (or staying until well past 10 p.m. to hear the results of a vote).
She even comes to events during which she remains entirely out of the spotlight. At a recent presidential debate viewing party hosted by the Community Free Democrats at an Upper West Side bar, Brewer arrived too late to snag a table and perched instead on the stairs, ordering a drink and watching the TV screens, her presence unannounced and largely unnoticed. She wasn’t there for show. She was there because she considers it her job.
“It is a 24/7 job. If anybody thinks less, they’re wrong,” Brewer said in a recent interview.
The fruits of her constant efforts over the past 11 years in office are myriad. Brewer has written and passed dozens of bills, but she points to a few of them as her greatest accomplishments.
“I would say the Open Data Bill [is one of them]. We’ll see what happens, but just the fact that the bill exists, there’s now a technical manual, the city’s taking it seriously,” Brewer said, referring to the law that requires city agencies to post all public information in an easily accessible online portal. The mayor signed it into law this year, and it’s slated to become fully enacted by 2018.
“That’s nerdy, that’s techy, but it’s exciting,” she added. “To me, city data is yours—the public’s—and it should be available.”
Brewer said that she and her staff had attended hundreds of meetings over many years, working with information officers from the former Clinton administration and national experts on open-data laws to craft the bill and push it forward. She served as the chair of the Committee on Technology in Government for seven years and now heads the Committee on Governmental Operations—she’s a self-professed policy wonk and loves getting into the nitty-gritty of city operations.
Accessibility is important to Brewer, and she often attributes her own accessibility to her staff, crediting them with keeping her district office a bustling and welcoming place for constituents. The Columbus Avenue storefront is packed with flyers and brochures and staffed with the help of a team of 30 to 40 student interns. Residents know that if they stop in at the office, they’ll get a response to their question or help with their problem.
Another of Brewer’s proudest and most hard-won accomplishments is passing the retail rezoning law for the Upper West Side that is designed to preserve “mom and pop” local businesses. Maintaining the character of the neighborhood has been a key fight for Brewer, who also has worked often with preservation groups to expand historic districts and designate new landmarks.
While Brewer has lived on the Upper West Side since 1969, she credits her in-depth knowledge of the neighborhood to working for former City Council Member Ruth Messinger in the 1990s before Messinger became borough president and ran for mayor.
“I worked for Ruth for a long time,” Brewer said. “That’s how I know this neighborhood, and I really owe everything to her. Everything.” The two now co-teach a course on public policy at Hunter College.
She also said that several positions she held before running for office have been instrumental in helping her now.
“In the Dinkins administration, I was the director of the federal office,” Brewer said. “[That deals with] how many grants you get, what’s the markup like, how much highway money do you get versus pubic transit money, all of the environmental stuff, what agencies apply for federal grants. That was an eye-opener. That has helped me immensely today talk about policy and issues.”
She also studied nonprofits and worked for a time for a private real estate development company, helping craft a complex deal to build new affordable housing units in Far Rockaway, Queens, which she said has helped her in working with developers and residents on housing issues on the Upper West Side.
“I always know the brownstone crowd, and the co-op crowd, and the rich crowd and the middle-class, Mitchell-Lama crowd. You have to be someone who is comfortable in all of those crowds,” Brewer said.
With her city council term set to end in 2013, Brewer could be looking ahead to a more relaxed existence, although that’s pretty unlikely. (Asked about her free time, she is hard-pressed to remember the last time she took a vacation, although she recalled a time she jetted over to Europe to see relatives for dinner—and then immediately flew home.) She is planning to run for Manhattan borough president, though she has yet to put together a campaign staff. Before that, however, she’s focused on finishing out her third and final term on a strong note.
“My dream would be to pass some version of the paid sick leave. You can’t imagine how hard we have been working on that bill,” Brewer said of the bill that she authored requiring businesses to give workers paid sick days. “You don’t actually often get a chance, with one piece of legislation, to take care of half a million or a million people’s real basic needs. People really do get fired for being sick, and they’re not people who speak up a lot.”
She would also like to help lay out a framework for the next administration to address the pressing issues of job creation and housing, and to continue her work making the Upper West Side safer and more senior-friendly.
“I’d love to figure out a way that the skills and the knowledge that I’ve accumulated is put to good use for the city of New York,” Brewer said of her possible next steps. “Beyond that, I don’t know.”
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