One of Alessandra Biaggi’s fondest childhood memories is her family gathering around the large, rectangular wood table her grandparents had in their Whitehall home.
“This is where a lot of the adults would be constantly talking about politics,” Biaggi said. “They were just yelling about things all the time. That was a place where I gained my voice. It was the table that we rolled the ravioli on. And this is the table where we celebrated birthdays.
“And it’s currently the table my team is sitting around to launch this campaign.”
Biaggi arguably has one of the toughest political tasks in front of her — beat an entrenched state senator, in a primary no less.
And if Jeffrey Klein is worried about his future in Albany, he’s not exactly showing it. Freshly back in the ranks of the Democratic Party, Klein was a no-show Sunday at a town hall hosted by Northwest Bronx Indivisible.
But that was OK for the 100 or so people who did trek out to the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture center, because they had a chance to join Biaggi at her table.
“This is a place that I care very deeply about,” Biaggi said. “All you have to do is pause a moment and listen, because there are a lot of people hurting, and we have to do better.”
Biaggi jumped into the senate race last year when grassroot politicos organized to target members of Klein’s Independent Democratic Caucus — a group of eight breakaway Democrats who shared power in the senate with Republicans. The seven-year alliance came to an end earlier this month, but for many attending Sunday’s town hall, this was a partnership that should’ve ended years ago.
“There is a lot of legislation that has passed the Assembly but has died in the state senate,” Biaggi said, noting the Republican control in the upper chamber. “It must be very frustrating to be in a Democratic Assembly and to work very hard on bills that the community cares about, only to get to the end of the session and have none of those bills come to the (senate) floor for a vote.”
While many progressive bills — like health care reform, reproductive rights and state-level immigration reform — stalled in the senate, Klein maintained popularity thanks to his tenure, and his access to millions of state dollars — money he funneled back into his district, especially Riverdale.
No longer a senate co-leader, Klein might not have that same level of influence. But it’s still more than someone new to the chamber, like a Sen. Biaggi, might have.
“My opponent, for the past seven years, has been empowering Republicans in the state senate, so a lot of his power and a lot of his money he has gotten is a result of that power agreement with Republicans,” Biaggi said. “The cost of this power sharing agreement has cost the community and the entire district too much. It cost us fully funding our public schools. It cost us campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform, the Dream Act.
“And I think it’s safe to say that my leadership will be a better representation of the district, because I will listen to the actual needs of those in the district, and not put my own self-interests first.”
Town hall moderator Gary Axelbank read a statement from Klein expressing regret for not attending, but said his focus that weekend had to be on this past Tuesday’s special elections, where two senate seats were up for grabs. One event organizer told The Riverdale Press that negotiations with Klein had been ongoing for weeks, including an offer to change the date.
But up until late Saturday afternoon, organizers believed Klein would indeed come to Fieldston before the senator delivered the bad news.
One lawmaker who was in attendance in the audience was Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, and Biaggi pledged to work with him on one issue close to the legislator’s heart: public transportation.
Biaggi is tired of the tug-of-war between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio over who is responsible for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and wants to firmly establish once and for all that MTA funding is the responsibility of the state.
Yet, that doesn’t mean the city still can’t help — especially by sharing in some of the financial benefit some property owners get for being near train and bus stops.
“We could have a real estate tax for developers who have real estate that is very close to MTA hubs,” Biaggi said. “If their properties are benefiting from the MTA, they should have to pay a higher tax.”
But where Biaggi diverges from Dinowitz, however, is her — albeit limited — support of congestion pricing downtown. Under current proposals, cars driving into the city’s key business districts in Manhattan would have to pay more than $10 per vehicle.
Biaggi, however, wants to explore a varying pricing structure that would take into account low-income families who need to drive into the city.
“Congestion pricing is a good start, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” Biaggi said. “We do not want to negatively impact working families.”
Klein and Biaggi still have plenty of time to campaign, with primary elections set for September.
“When I decided to finally run, I was met with a lot of opposition,” Biaggi said. “It came in the form of two letters: N and O. ‘No, no, it’s not your turn.’ ‘No, you should wait. ‘No, he is so powerful and has so much money. ‘No, it’s really not the time to be primarying Democrats.’
“I am primarying a Republican, or at least somebody who has empowered Republicans. It wasn’t a time to be silent. This is not the first time I was told no. I was told no all of my life, but I have always proved all of them wrong.”