The Most Important New York State Senate Race Progressives Should Be Following

08/26/2010 09:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lost in much of the New York election coverage, is a detailed discussion about one of the most important state legislative races in the state. When State Senator Eric Schneiderman announced he would be running for New York State Attorney General, the race for the 31st Senate District (SD) became the critical senate race of this election for progressives.

Many people will say this is a safe Democratic seat, so makes it so important? For those don't know the 31st SD, it encompasses parts of the Upper West Side, Washington Heights, Inwood and Riverdale. Some of the best progressive legislation that has been passed into law over the last decade was rooted in the work of elected officials and groups representing this district. What you find in this district are communities of all different economic and cultural backgrounds working together on a range important issues. This district truly represents the best of what New York can be. For progressives, it is critically important that a strong leader remain in this seat and continue the legacy that people like Eric Schneiderman have built to bring about progressive change in New York.

There are currently five Democrats running for the seat, but it is Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat who stands out as the most capable of providing the type of leadership, experience, and organizing skills needed to be an effective progressive voice for this district and the state.

Earlier this week, Assemblyman Espaillat and I had a chance to do a Q and A about the upcoming election.

Joel Barkin: You are running in one of the most diverse districts in all of New York. The media has focused on this ethnic breakdown of this district and what it might mean for the outcome of this race. How would you describe the dynamic of this race?

Adriano Espaillat: I think the media has definitely oversimplified some of the dynamics of this race. This race is about which candidate can bring the different parts of this district together around a shared progressive agenda of economic and social change, and who can deliver results. As I campaign around the district, I can tell you the issues people are most concerned about, no matter where they live, are all the same - housing, jobs, education, affordable health care and core civil and economic rights. These are the issues I've dedicated my life and career to working on and giving voice to. I think people understand how important it is to have a powerful progressive voice in this seat, and that's why elected officials like Eric Schnedierman, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, City Comptroller John Liu, labor unions, small businesses, LGBT groups, community action groups, families form Washington Heights, the Upper West Side and the Bronx are all rallying around my candidacy.

JB: The New York State Senate this year received national attention for turning into a bit of a circus. What do you think it's going to take for you to be effective in the NY State Senate given how difficult an environment it can be?

AE: First and foremost, you have to start off from a position that the status quo is not going to cut it. You have to be willing to challenge the system, but do it in a constructive way. I understand the legislative process, how to build legislative coalitions, and how to work with outside advocates to pressure the legislature.

In terms of building legislative coalitions, a big part of this job is understanding the districts of other members in the legislature, so you more easily identify common ground. I've traveled all around this state and know that the issues facing a Latino family in New York City are not that much different than the issues facing a rural family in upstate New York. I know how important it is that we not allow our opponents to pit upstate vs. downstate, or white vs. non-white, or middle class vs. working class. What I've done in the Assembly and in New York City is break us out of those narrow silos. Over the course of my career, I've worked to bring people of all backgrounds together around a common purpose, and that is the experience I'll draw upon to be an effective member of the State Senate.

JB: What types of reforms will you look to enact if elected?

AE: We need to pass reforms that will build trust in state government and get more people engaged in the political process. I will work to pass legislation that will require complete and total disclosure of outside income for elected officials. If elected officials have potential conflicts of interests, voters deserve to know what they are.

Furthermore, if we're going to get more people engaged in the political process, we need to start with passing major election reform. The two biggest things we could do related to election reform would be to implement a vote by mail/permanent no-excuse absentee voting system and pass same day registration.

JB: What legislative accomplishments are you most proud?

AE: There are a number of legislative accomplishments that I'm proud of, but I'm also very proud of how we've changed the political culture in a district that historically never felt connected to state government. The people I represent no longer look at Albany as some faraway place that plays no relevant role in their lives. They now know when we work together, when we speak collectively as one voice, we can make dramatic and fundamental change.

In terms of policy, in the last session I was primarily focused on passing legislation that would help those most impacted by the national economic downturn. I was involved in passing a number of pieces of legislation that make it easier to join a union, find affordable housing and make college more affordable. The past session, I am also proud that I was able to pass legislation that makes it's easier for small businesses to access start-up capital from the state. This was necessary because small businesses, the engine of our state, were and in many cases still remain unable to get loans from banks. The state needed to step up and help small businesses, and that's what we did. This is the first time New York State has ever passed legislation that would create a revolving loan fund for small businesses.

Also this year, I fought to ensure that spending levels would not be cut on programs that most impacted working and middle class New Yorkers. During an economic downturn, the last thing you want to do is cut programs like education, Medicaid and job training programs.

Finally, I was very proud of the role I played in helping reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. I worked closely with Senator Schneiderman and other leaders for years to bring about the end of policies which had been more frequently and unjustly applied to minorities.

JB: Finally, after the Bush Administration ended, many people thought the era of divisive politics was over. We elected an African American President, the media told us we were not a post racial society, but then Arizona came along. We've also seen a rise in hate crimes both in New York and around the county. Then there's the birth of the "Tea Party," which has given a platform to some very hateful speech. Where do you think vitriol is coming from?

AE: It's very scary stuff what's happening around the country right now. A lot of the hate we're seeing is being fueled for political purposes. The economic insecurity that a lot of people are feeling right now is being exploited to drive a wedge on issues like race, class and immigrant status. There's now even a movement afoot to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment. All that being said, I'm proud that New York has not gone down the hateful path that states like Arizona seem to be on. We've remained an inclusive state that has so far avoided the type of scapegoating occurring in other parts of the country. Arizona showed what a state can do to institutionalize hate and discrimination. I believe New York is showing what a state can to do promote a humane and respectful political environment, and that's what I will continue to fight for when I'm elected to the Senate.

JB: Adriano, thanks for your time. Good luck with this race.

AE: Thank you.