Freshman pol praises legislature’s “productive and prolific” session
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes used two words to describe the state legislature’s recently completed session. “Productive” and “prolific” were the words he employed in his assessment of the legislature’s work this year.
“We worked at a really fast pace, one bill after another. We wanted to get a lot done,” Gounardes told the Home Reporter over coffee in the Bridgeview Diner on Third Avenue on June 26, a few days after the legislature ended its 2019 session.
Gounardes, a Democratic freshman lawmaker whose win over longtime Republican State Sen. Marty Golden last November in Brooklyn’s 22nd Senate District marked a sea change in Brooklyn politics, is aware that all eyes are on him as he navigates his way through his first term. Golden had been in office for 16 years.
Gounardes campaigned on a platform that stressed the importance of street safety. His signature issue was also a major focus of the new Democratic majority in the State Senate, resulting in passage of a bill he sponsored to increase the number of speed cameras in New York City school zones. “It will have a huge impact on street safety,” he said.
The bill also increases the hours the cameras are operational. The devices will be on from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.
“Schools are not open from just 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. anymore. Kids are going to after-school programs. The schools are open at night. It’s a significant issue. I am incredibly proud we got this done,” he told the Home Reporter.
The legislature ushered in a new era of rent laws with bills that heavily favor the rights of tenants. “We wanted to bring stability to the housing market,” he said. The issue hits home for him. “There are 40,000 rent stabilized units in my district,” he said.
The interview was briefly interrupted when two young men approached Gounardes’ booth in the diner to shake his hand. He had been the guest speaker at the Fort Hamilton High School graduation the day before and the two new graduates told him how much they enjoyed his speech.
Turning his attention back to his job, he said the bills the legislature worked on included important election law reforms, congestion pricing, climate change and combating sexual harassment in Albany.
The latter is also an important issue for him. His chief-of-staff, Tori Kelly, was a leader of a working group of legislative staffers who assisted lawmakers as they crafted the bill.
The legislature increased funding for New York City schools by $1 billion.
Lawmakers passed strong measures to reform the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and how it spends money, including instituting a public audit on the MTA’s books that will be made available to the public by January of 2020, he said. “We want to know where the money is going,” he said.
But Gounardes admitted that he was disappointed with some aspects of the legislative session.
For example, he said he would like to have seen more in the way of campaign finance reform, such as lowering campaign contribution limits to get big money out of politics.
He also did not get passed his bill that would make pedestrian safety part of the curriculum for residents studying for driver’s licenses. “We will try again next year,” he vowed.
And he failed to secure passage for his bill to reduce the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge toll for Brooklyn residents. “We have to give some relief to folks,” he said.
Still, he said he learned a lot this year. “I know how the process works,” he said.
Now that the legislature is out of session until January, Gounardes has more time to crisscross his district to visit senior citizen centers and attend neighborhood events. The 22nd District takes in parts of several neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn, including Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Gerritsen Beach and Marine Park.
He talked about continuing the work of the Southern Brooklyn Pedestrian Safety Task Force, a group he organized to address street safety. He plans to organize a youth town hall and is sponsoring Yoga in the Park events in Shore Road Park as well as a summer concert series in local parks.
One pet project is his 3 For Community initiative, in which he encourages his constituents to perform three acts of neighborly service, such as removing trash from a park or helping an elderly person to cross the street, on a weekly basis.
“I believe in it strongly,” he told the Home Reporter.
On the personal side, Gounardes recently proposed to his girlfriend, Melanie Graf. The couple plans to wed in December, a month before the start of a new legislative session.