Some candidates come to a race without much experience in politics — they’ve been police officers, or teachers, or have a background as a professor or lawyer.
But for Jeffrey Dinowitz, politics isn’t just a background. Representing the northwest Bronx in the Assembly has been his life for the better part of 30 years.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Dinowitz took over the seat in 1994, succeeding Oliver Koppell after he was elevated to state attorney general. Since then, he’s been hard at work in the district, regularly joining forces with other state and city lawmakers to enact change within the district and across the state. And even after all this time, Dinowitz says he hasn’t slowed down.
“Within the last year, I accomplished more in the Assembly than I could have ever imagined,” Dinowitz said. “Personally, I passed more bills through both houses of the legislature than I ever did before. It was a huge year. It was amazing.”
With a senate in Democratic control, as well as a governor from the same party, there’s been a number of reforms, Dinowitz said, including ones upgrading election laws as well as an overall rent reform package.
While picking his favorite legislation is “like picking a favorite child,” Dinowitz said the eviction moratorium at the height of the coronavirus pandemic was a victory he was particularly proud of.
“The massive impact that it’s already had on huge numbers of New Yorkers,” he said. “The number of eviction cases has plummeted since we passed the rent law. The rent law, itself, I’ve been fighting for many years for rent reform. It’s one of my passions.”
Dinowitz prides himself on having lived in the district — at least in its current boundaries — since he was 10 years old. There was an “exodus” of people from the Bronx in the 1970s, he said, as financial hardships took a toll on the city. Yet the Dinowitz family just wasn’t in a position to leave, even if they wanted to.
“I finished school, I got married,” he said. “We had kids. We’ve been here all this time, and I got involved in politics before I could vote.”
Dinowitz was part of the movement protesting the Vietnam War. From there, politics came naturally, especially as he pushed trying to elect “the right people.”
“I was a volunteer with the McGovern camp, the presidential campaign,” he said of South Dakota U.S. Sen. George McGovern, who ran against Richard Nixon in 1972. “Most people didn’t stick around. It was a flash in the pan for most people. But some people stayed involved, and I loved it, because I saw that through action, through activism, you can get things done.”
Dinowitz started wading into local issues, becoming a district leader, and then working his way to Albany. And he never looked back, even in the last few months with the coronavirus crisis. Like many workplaces, Dinowitz’s office has been closed since March.
“Everybody on my staff, they’re working from home, on the computer, but they’re working harder than ever, much harder,” Dinowitz said. “We are getting tons of phone calls, people leave a voicemail and we respond by no later than the next day. The volume that we are getting dwarfs anything we’ve gotten before.”
One of the biggest issues since the onset of COVID-19 has been accessing unemployment benefits, the Assemblyman said, as the state has been swamped with hundreds of thousands of people in need of help after losing their jobs.
Of course, the coronavirus isn’t the only thing Dinowitz’s constituents are facing. In the past few weeks, protests have spread across the country in reaction to the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While he’s seen civil unrest before, Dinowitz says these uprisings feel different.
“The protests that are taking place now, appear to me more widespread, more sustained,” Dinowitz said. “And I think, years, decades, more than decades — like forever — of discrimination, of everything bad that’s happened in this country in terms of race, has come to a head because of this disgusting murder that took place in Minneapolis.”
The combination of the protests and the injustices protesters are fighting against, the continued threat of COVID-19, and the economic impact of the virus have created unprecedented challenges.
“I think we have to have a single purpose of getting through these crises, in the plural,” Dinowitz said. “And I think our role is to help people, however we can.”
His years in the Assembly are an asset, he said, and he’s only become more engaged in the last few years.
“I know people always saw me, I think, as a person who’s very engaged and active,” Dinowitz said. “Even more so than ever, on the Albany level, the success we had has given me even more incentive. It’s sort of an adrenaline rush. The more I got done, the more I wanted to get done.
“I believe that I’ve been more involved, if for no other reason, for the necessity of this crisis.”