Anticipating primary challenge, Lentol defends his record

Longtime pol says he ‘passed more progressive legislation’

Joe Lentol is gearing up for the fight of his political life. And he said he’s ready for it.

Lentol, a Democrat who has represented the 50th Assembly District (Williamsburg-Greenpoint) in the State Assembly for 46 years, told this newspaper that he expects to face a primary challenger when he runs for re-election in 2020, although he has no idea who the person will be.

“I guess I’m getting a challenge,” he said over a medium rare steak at Peter Luger’s Restaurant.

Why after four decades in public service would Lentol suddenly have a target on his back? “I’m not progressive enough for some people,” he said.

The rise of Donald Trump in 2016 re-awakened the progressive movement which began pushing back against the Republican president’s policies, according to Lentol. But the Trump era has also spawned a backlash by progressives against politicians who have been in office a long time and are not seen as progressive, he said.

“All of this is happening because of Trump,” Lentol said. “They’re trying to take out the old guys.”

Lentol pointed to the political fate of Martin Dilan as an example. Dilan, a state senator representing Bushwick and parts of Williamsburg, was defeated in the Democratic primary in 2018 by newcomer Julia Salazar, who ran with support from the Democratic Socialists of America. Democratic superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hit the trail with her. Salazar went on to win the general election.

Lentol said he is undaunted about the prospect of a primary. “You have to be prepared and you have to work for it,” he said.

One reason he thinks he will face a primary: his support for Airbnb. It’s a position that puts him at odds with many of his fellow Democrats. “I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Airbnb opponents charge that New York City landlords are using the home share service to warehouse apartments to keep them off the rental market.

But Lentol recalled attending a Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce event where Airbnb was one of the sponsors and meeting several Airbnb hosts who were just regular, everyday New Yorkers, not greedy landlords warehousing apartments.

“All these people want to do is home-share,” he said. “They are trying to make a little extra money to pay off their condo or pay the mortgage on the house.”

Lentol said he has not taken campaign contributions from Airbnb. “I take zero money from Airbnb. Nothing. Nada,” he said.

He does, however, favor the idea of keeping rent-regulated apartments from being listed on Airbnb.

As he looks forward to his re-election bid, Lentol is seeking to shore up his progressive credentials. “I’ve passed more progressive legislation in my career than anyone,” he told this newspaper.

Lento, who is a leader of the Assembly’s 21-member Brooklyn delegation, is also chair of the powerful Codes Committee, the panel dealing with criminal justice statutes. In 2009, he led the Assembly’s effort to repeal parts of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Named after Nelson Rockefeller, who was New York’s governor at the time, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted in 1973 and included some of the strictest sentencing guidelines in the country. Under the law, possession of four ounces of heroin, cocaine or marijuana carried a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in jail.

Criminal justice reform advocates charged that the laws unfairly targeted minority communities.

The state’s Penal Law was changed in 2009 to eliminate the mandatory minimum sentences that had been written into the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Judges were given the authority to sentence drug defendants to shorter sentences or assign them to drug treatment.

Lentol said he began pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana way back in 1977.

He was also the main architect behind the so-called “Raise the Age” legislation passed by the state legislature last year to prevent young suspects under the age of 18 from being charged as adults for non-violent crimes.

“Anybody who knows anything knows Joe Lentol did it,” he said.

Legislation he worked on to reform the bail system and ensure that suspects get speedy trials were “the most important criminal justice reform bills passed in New York State in 200 years,” Lentol said.

Lentol voted for congestion pricing out of a belief that it would ease traffic congestion in lower Manhattan, not because of the revenue it is supposed to generate for the MTA. He said the money raised by congestion pricing is “a drop in the bucket” in terms of what the MTA will need

He voted to release President Donald Trump’s New York State taxes. Trump is refusing to turn over his federal taxes to the House Ways and Means Committee. “Somebody’s got to do something about this guy,” Lentol said.

During the interview at Peter Luger’s, he also talked about his efforts to get Bushwick Inlet Park built and his role in getting a bike lane installed on the Pulaski Bridge.

Lentol, whose father and grandfather were members of the New York State Assembly decades earlier, first won his seat in 1972 and took office in January of 1973.

“If you don’t like this job, you wouldn’t be doing it for 46 years,” he said.

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