Democratic primary voters in New York’s 34th Senate District went to the polls last September to make a choice between old and new.
The old, state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, was a 23-year veteran of Albany and a powerbroker willing to cut deals with senate Republicans or Gov. Andrew Cuomo to get things done.
The new was Alessandra Biaggi and the promise of a true Democratic majority in the state senate for only the second time since World War II.
Klein supporters argued the district would regret losing his experience and the millions of dollars in funding he brought home each year. But Biaggi promised to be a progressive voice in Albany who would fight to bring New York’s policies in-line with its liberal character, not compromising with conservative Republicans in the era of Trump.
Ultimately, Biaggi won the fight. And as the state senate winds down a historically prolific session, it appears the freshman senator delivered on many of her promises.
“It was one of the most magnificent and exhilarating and frustrating and challenging and powerful experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” Biaggi said.
Despite the first-day-of-school sensation of being a first-time lawmaker and sitting in a chair where her feet literally did not reach the senate floor, Biaggi says she quickly got the hang of Albany with the support of her fellow lawmakers.
With virtual one-party rule in Albany after Democrats re-took the state senate in 2018, lawmakers sent bills protecting apartment tenants, farm laborers, DREAMers and members of the LGBTQ community to Cuomo’s desk. In the final weeks of the session, Democrats reached deals on a climate package intended to revolutionize New York’s energy sector as well as what was known as the “Green Light Bill,” which restored the right of undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.
“This was the most productive legislative session in modern political history,” Cuomo said at a June 21 news conference. Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat, said both chambers passed nearly 800 bills — the most since 2008.
“Yes, it is historic,” said John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican and the senate minority leader. “But I don’t think all of it’s good.”
In total, Biaggi herself introduced 61 bills, fifth most in the class of 17 freshmen senators elected last November — seventh most if Luis Sepúlveda of West Farms and Shelley Mayer of Yonkers, both of whom were first voted into office in spring special elections — are included. Among the most productive freshmen, only Biaggi and Queens Democrat Andrew Gounardes entered office without previous legislative experience at the state or municipal level.
More than a dozen of Biaggi’s bills passed the senate, with eight of them heading to Cuomo after passing the Democratic-controlled Assembly. The governor is expected to sign all eight into law.
In his final two years, Klein also sponsored eight bills signed into law by Cuomo — two more were vetoed — during a period he served in leadership roles for the Independent Democratic Conference and, after April 2018, the Democratic minority. After only six months in office, Biaggi will have matched the raw numbers of her predecessor accomplished in twice the time.
In the session’s waning days, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for two bills sponsored by Biaggi: “Erin’s Law” and a robust anti-harassment package. Both passed unanimously in the state senate and by large margins in the Assembly.
“Erin’s Law,” named for child sexual abuse survivor and activist Erin Merryn, requires public schools develop age-appropriate curriculum on sexual exploitation for students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
In January, Biaggi and three women in the Assembly publicly revealed they were abused as children.
“And had I had education or knowledge at any step of the way,” Biaggi said in a June 3 speech before “Erin’s Law” passed the senate, “I would have been able to prevent years and years and years of … trauma.”
When the senator launched her original campaign in January 2018, Biaggi outlined four major causes she wanted to fight for: functioning transit, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and protections against sexual abuse, assault and harassment “so that every human being has a safe working environment.”
In the final month of session, Biaggi delivered on the last promise with the passage of anti-harassment laws, her signature achievement of the session.
The laws broadened victim protections, lengthened statutes of limitation, and eliminated the “severe or pervasive” standard for harassment cases.
In partnership with seven former Albany staffers who went public with their stories of harassment, Biaggi held two marathon hearings on workplace harassment for the first time since Cuomo’s father was governor. She pledged to combat sexual misconduct in a town notorious for its silence on the insidious issue.
Biaggi and fellow Democrats did not accomplish everything they wanted to, of course. Criminal justice reformers made some progress, but hiccups and sticking points couldn’t be worked out before lawmakers left for the year. The promise of universal health care and marijuana legalization also fell to the wayside of a busy session, although a last-minute effort did decriminalize possession of less than two ounces of cannabis.
This summer, Biaggi will return to the district — taking a break briefly to get married in July — to champion her record and seek out new challenges to address next session. For now, she leaves Albany assured she and her senate colleagues accomplished much of what they promised.
“I would say in full confidence, about 95 percent of the proposed laws that I campaigned on passed,” Biaggi said. “That is tremendously, insanely amazing. I’m back on my heels.”