New York's longest serving assemblymember retires this week. He reflects on his 52 years in office
Nelson Rockefeller, Malcolm Wilson, Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson, Andrew Cuomo, and now Kathy Hochul. That is the long list of New York governors who have been sworn in since Manhattan Democrat Richard Gottfried began his state Assembly career in 1971.
Now, barring a special session later this year, Gottfried is spending his final days in the legislature before it adjourns for the session. Gottfried is retiring from the 75th district this year, ending his run as the longest-serving lawmaker in state history. To put in all in perspective, Gottfried was elected at age 23 and just marked his 75th birthday. How about some more math? He estimates he’s made the trip from his Manhattan district to the state capitol in Albany nearly 1,500 times. WAMC caught up caught up with Gottfried this week.
What were your impressions when you first got to the capitol?
You know, when I first arrived, Democrats were in the minority in the Assembly, minority in the Senate, we had a Republican governor. Somehow I still fantasized, you know, being able to influence public policy. It quickly became clear that as long as we were in the minority, I wouldn't be doing that a lot. But fortunately in 1974 in my fourth year, we, as a result of the Watergate landslide, and as a result of a lot of hard campaign work, we took the majority in the Assembly, and it’s been for me, you know, a completely different world ever since. But I have always found it to be exciting and rewarding. And, they always say if you find a job that you love, you'll never have to work a day in your life. And I've just loved it. I've never had a boring day. In the Assembly, it's often frustrating, but always worth it.
Did you have a plan when your political career began for how long you would stay in this position?
You know, I've thought about that. And I really don't recall what I was thinking at that point. You know, I certainly intended to make a career of elective office. Whether I imagined that at some point, I would run for some other office, I'm not sure I had thought that through at that point. But, you know, 10 years before I ran for the Assembly, when I was 13, and John Kennedy was running for president. And this may sound kind of hokey, but you know, a whole lot of people were really inspired by him. And I was one of them and decided that I wanted to do elective office as a career. And lo and behold, 10 years later, that's just what I did. It's kind of mindboggling, but if you had asked me in 1971, how many years would I be in the Assembly? I don't know what I would have thought at the time.
What's the secret to your longevity? What's the secret to getting reelected every two years that whole time, not running afoul of your colleagues, that kind of thing?
Well, you know, it helps that as a very progressive legislator, I represent a very progressive district. Because I really value and enjoy my work in the Assembly, I haven't been constantly distracted by thinking about running for something else. And so my mind has always been on a combination of getting legislation done in Albany and focusing on serving people in the district and making sure they know what I'm doing. And, you know, while Manhattan has a reputation of wild and wooly politics, a good incumbent, which I'll take credit for being, really can have things pretty stable. We have over the decades had a lot of good incumbents have a strong track record of getting reelected. And I guess that's true in a lot of parts of the state. And I think, obviously, a lot of people might have gone off and done something else at some point in their career. But you know, except for a couple of moments that looking back on them, I think we're somewhat misguided, I've really always been focused on continuing doing what I'm doing.
What were those moments?
Well, you know, in around 1980, ‘81, when my son was 3 and 4 years old, I began thinking that Assemblyman…I wasn't making anywhere near the income, that my Columbia Law degree would earn me if I was in private practice. And I thought seriously at that point of leaving public service and becoming a lawyer. And fortunately, a friend of mine said to me, you know, your son will be a lot better off growing in the household of a father who is really satisfied with the work that he does, rather than one who is making a lot of money, but isn't really very happy. And those words have kind of haunted me ever since and it's part of what has kept me doing what I do.
In 1992, our Congressman Ted Weiss, died of a heart attack in September. And there was about a two-week campaign for the Democratic nomination to take his spot on the ballot. And for reasons, mostly because I felt, you know, it's two weeks out of my life, I could devote it to this campaign. And I don't have to give up the Assembly seat unless I get the congressional nomination. What the heck, let's do it. And so I invested two weeks of my life to try to persuade members of the Democratic county committee to nominate me for Congress. Ultimately, what happened was Jerry Nadler, who was at all other times a very close friend and political ally of mine, and we go back to high school together. Now, Nadler just mopped up the whole field. I mean, it was almost embarrassing, the solid triumph he had in that election. But that was really the last time I thought about doing anything else. And, frankly, you know, if I had talked to Jerry the morning that Ted Weiss died and said, What are we all thinking? It would have been clear to me that Nadler was going to mop up the field and I could have saved myself two weeks of work. Which, as old, old friends we should have done. Anyhow, since then, I've been really exclusively focused on doing what I love doing.
Sidebar to that. Obviously, Nadler is having conversations like that again today, given the upcoming primary against fellow Democratic powerhouse Carolyn Maloney. How do you see that one going?
It's gonna be a tossup. I am very strongly supporting Jerry, although I've always been a good friend of Carolyn's. My expectation is that the West Side of Manhattan, which is Nadler territory, historically votes much more heavily in Democratic primaries than the East Side, which is Carolyn's territory. And so I'm hoping Jerry wins. It's an unfortunate contest, but I will be out on the streets campaigning in the summer for Jerry.
So let's get back to you now. What's the argument against term limits? And I ask that knowing you have a very specific perspective here.
Yeah. The argument against term limits is that it basically shifts political power, first to legislative staff and secondly to lobbyists and to the executive branch. And you know, just as legislators are beginning to master a subject field, they’re term limited out. It's a crazy system. You know, in the New York City Council, where you have a two-term limit, the day people get sworn in, first of all, some of them are immediately running for speaker. And secondly, people are immediately focusing not on the city council, but on what job they're going to get next. And I don't think that's healthy for the city council or any other legislative body.
Certainly in the New York legislature, there is a lot more turnover than people think. You know, I keep track of the seniority mix, at least in the Assembly Democratic Conference. The mid-point of seniority in the Assembly Democratic Conference is people who took their seat in 2015, which is not that long ago. So half or more members of the New York State Assembly Majority are people who've been here, six or seven years or a lot less. So there was really a lot more turnover, just by the natural order of things of people moving on to something else or losing an election than a lot of people think.
What do you wish people better understood about your job and that of the legislature?
Well, one is, people generally think about, when they think about public office, city hall and they think about Washington. People tend to not focus on what the state legislature is doing. Even though, by far, most of the laws that apply in our daily lives do not come from city hall or Congress, they come from the state legislature, and the funding of our schools, a lot of the funding of health care, the quality of our roads and a whole lot of things, mass transit, all come from Albany, much more so than Washington or city hall. And so I would like it if the general public had more of an appreciation of that and spent more time focusing on, you know, who's my Assemblyman or my Senator and, by golly, what are they doing?
I also think that, and this has improved over the decades, the vast majority of legislators are people who are doing this because they're really interested in public policy and making things better for their community. They're really not in it, you know, just for a political career. That wasn't as true when I arrived. But I think over the decades, it is overwhelmingly true that my colleagues, whether they share my views or not, are here because they really care about public policy. And I think people would be happier to know that. And I think people would be more engaged in trying to persuade their legislators about what to do if they understood that their legislators really are interested in doing what's right, by and large, as I say, even when they disagree with me.
Why are you going and do you think you'll miss it?
Two very interesting questions. One is, you know, I am 75. I've been doing this for 52 years. You know, there comes a point where it's time to retire. Add to that the fact that my wife, who was a nursery school teacher, retired from that two years ago. You know, there comes a point where lifting 3-year-olds gets to be a lot of work. And so we decided that we ought to enjoy retirement together for crying out loud. So will I miss it? I assume I will. But I am really looking forward to loving retirement. You know, I've loved the legislature. I still do. I think I'm enormously lucky to be leaving a career at a point where I still love it. But boy, I'm really looking forward to retirement and traveling and doing watercolor painting and Chinese calligraphy, which is one of my hobbies for the last 25 years. I'm really looking forward to that.
Let's do a lightning round to wrap up. As I mentioned, you're on your ninth governor of New York State now. Who was the best in your estimation?
Putting aside Governor Hochul, who I'm a really big fan of, although that may be partly because she is so different from her predecessor, but before Governor Hochul, easy answer, my favorite governor was Eliot Spitzer. And people are always surprised to hear that. Yeah, he could, he could have some pretty sharp elbows. And, yes, he self-destructed. But for the 15 months that we had him as governor, he was terrific. He was progressive, he was determined to get people to agree to things. And if they didn't agree, he would pull people together and make them sit and talk until they worked something out. It breaks my heart that he did not get to serve for eight years. I think he would have done amazing things if he had been able to remain as governor.
How would you change state government, if you had the chance to?
Well, I think in the in the budget process, I would shift more leverage towards the legislature. Under some complicated rules in our state constitution, the governor has enormous power in budget negotiations. And I think New York would be a better place if the legislature had more had more of a say, in the budgetary process. I'm looking forward to public campaign financing with matching funds kicking in in two years, I think that will make a big improvement, then enabling people who want to run for the legislature to do that without either having big money or getting the support of big money. I think that'll help a lot.
I would hope that in the future, my legislative colleagues get paid a lot more. You know, trial court judges in New York State make 50% more than we do. When I was first elected, kids fresh out of my law school who went to work for the big law firms made about the same as a member of the Assembly made, which was $15,000 at that time. Today, fresh graduates from my law school, if they're good and go into law practice, are making twice what I make. And I think that discourages some really top notch people from running for the legislature and making a career out of it. You know, I'm still here because both my wife and I just have gotten used to living a relatively modest lifestyle. I mean, I understand that making $110,000 a year, which is my salary, you know, puts me pretty high in the percentile of earners. But it's a pittance compared to what I would be making if I had just gone off to practice law.
Would you ban outside income along with raising pay?
Yes, I would. And we have largely banned outside income, not entirely. But yes. The last time I earned outside income was in 1974, when I was first admitted to practice law, and really foolishly tried to run a law practice while serving in the legislature. When I went to do my taxes that year, it turned out my net income from the practice of law was $82. So that was a complete flop because I wasn't prepared to put any time into it. And so I have been a full time legislator ever since and I can't imagine how anybody would do this job and do it really the way it needs to be done and also be earning an outside income — which makes you think that people who are earning an outside income aren't earning it because of their labor. They're earning it because of something else. And I would like to not have to wonder about that.
I want to end on a big question. You've spent literally your entire life in American government. What do you think of the state of American democracy now as you're prepared to leave that office?
Well, not my entire life. There were 23 years before.
And I certainly hope there will be a few years after. But I'm really frightened. I mean, our political process in New York is in reasonably good shape. But all over the country, the level of division and level to which Republicans seem prepared to go to undermine small d democratic processes is really scary. You know, when Donald Trump was first running for president in 2016, I said to everybody who would listen, you should go read a 1935 little novel by Sinclair Lewis called ‘It Can't Happen Here’ about a fascist takeover in America. And it was a very scary book when I read it in high school, and I reread it a few years ago, it's still a scary book. But not all that far-fetched if you think about America today. So I'm really frightened for our future.
But as an institutionalist, which is what you've become, do you keep faith in the system? Or are you less optimistic than you were when you first got here to Albany?
I'm pretty optimistic about the future of state government in New York. I'm really scared about state government in a lot of other states and how that will affect national elections over the next few years, you know, if some of the people running around with the big lie about the 2020 election take power in a handful of states. We could be in serious trouble. And if we get somebody like Donald Trump, who I would consider somebody who would gladly and easily turn into a real, to use a polite term, autocrat. I find that really very scary. And a very plausible future.
OK, one more thing. It's next January, the first week of January. Governor Hochul, if she's reelected, or somebody else is giving the State of the State address. For the first time in a long time, you're not there. What will you be doing?
Oh, well, good question. I might be traveling somewhere around the world with my wife. I might be enjoying a watercolor class at the Art Students League in Manhattan where I used to take painting classes. Who knows?
Copyright 2022 WAMC Northeast Public Radio. To see more, visit WAMC Northeast Public Radio.