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Politico NY: Gottfried closing in on half-century in Albany

By Bill Mahoney, July 3

ALBANY — There are certain things New Yorkers can count on. They know that rush-hour subway service will be maddeningly slow. They realize that the Mets will lose key players to the disabled list. And they assume that Assemblyman Dick Gottfried will run for reelection every two years.

But while the subways and the Mets are capable of upsetting expectations, in theory anyway, Gottfried has no intention of doing so. He has stood for election in his Hell’s Kitchen- and Chelsea-area district 24 times beginning in 1970. And he’s doing it again this year.

Assuming he wins — that outcome isn’t really in doubt — and finishes his term, he’ll enter the record books as one of only two legislators in New York history to serve for half a century. (The late John Marchi, who represented Staten Island in the state Senate from Jan. 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 2006, is the other.)

Technically, Gottfried will become the longest-serving New York legislator ever, assuming he wins in November. He’ll have been in office for 18,262 days compared to Marchi’s 18,261, thanks to the way leap years have fallen during his tenure.

All those decades of service have made Gottfried something of an institution in Albany at the age of 71. And with seniority comes power — as chairman of the Assembly Health Committee for years, he has been present at the creation of significant health care initiatives through several gubernatorial administrations.

“I don’t know that it’s ever been a goal,” Gottfried said of his impending longevity record. “There’s the old saying that if you have a job that you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. When I was 13 years old and John Kennedy was running for president, I, like a lot of other people, decided that public service in elected office was what I wanted to do. And it just never ceases to amaze me that I’ve gotten the opportunity to do that. I think setting a record is more something that I regard as amusing than anything else.”

He certainly does seem bemused by his longevity: “I sometimes joke that Manhattan District Attorney Bob Morgenthau quit after only 36 years,” he said. “But then again, he was 90 at the time.”

Gottfried was one of the youngest people ever elected to the state Legislature — on his first day in office in 1971, he was mistaken for a page and denied entrance to the chamber. (A former Assembly minority leader by the name of Theodore Roosevelt came into office at the age of 23 years and 2 months, besting Gottfried’s 23 years and 7 months.)

His long tenure can be attributed, at least in part, to his record of taking outlandishly liberal positions that soon enter the mainstream of Democratic politics. In his freshman year, he was one of a small group of members to promote gay rights, and he eventually became the first New York legislator to propose legalizing same-sex marriage. More recently, he’s been his house’s sponsor of GENDA, the long-debated measure to prohibit discrimination against people due to their gender identity or expression.

Gottfried has also been a longtime supporter of changing the state’s marijuana laws, backing a bill in his first term to let liquor stores sell the drug.

“When we decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, that was my bill,” he said. “We were not the first state to do that, we borrowed the idea from Oregon. I always say I do some of my best work plagiarizing from Oregon or Vermont or Minnesota, when they have a Democratic governor. And the medical marijuana law was a bill I first introduced in ’97. But again, I didn’t develop that idea — in the ’96 elections California, and I think a couple of other states, adopted medical marijuana laws by referendum. … It then took [17] years to get it enacted in New York.”

And there’s one even weightier measure that Gottfried is known for debating on the floor for hours every year. That would be the New York Health Act, which would authorize single-payer health insurance in New York. He introduced it in 1992.

He carries that bill in his capacity as the Health Committee chairman, a post he has held since 1987. Given that Republicans have controlled the Senate for most of his tenure, he has been the most important Democratic elected official in the state on one of government’s most critical issues, health care.

It’s a position that suits him well. Topics like health insurance and the cost of prescription drugs are among the most complicated and wonkiest policy areas that come before a legislative body, and Gottfried has some professorial characteristics, beyond his bespectacled and gray-bearded appearance.

“Dick Gottfried, from the time he got here, to the current moment, has been chasing the ideal phrasing for each bill he’s associated with,” said state Sen. Kemp Hannon of Garden City, Gottfried’s decades-long Republican counterpart in the Senate Health Committee. “[He] manages to remind us of that every negotiation.”

With that in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that when asked about his most significant accomplishments, Gottfried pointed to both medical marijuana and an arguably equally important but much less glamorous issue.

“The health care proxy law that was passed in ’91, which lets you appoint someone to make health care decisions for you if you lose medial capacity,” he said when asked about his top achievements. “Then in 2010, we finally passed a follow-up law that says if you didn’t appoint somebody, it enables family members to make health care decisions if you lose decision-making capacity. We were one of the last states in the union to enact that legislation.”

Gottfried points to a few significant changes in the Assembly since he took office — a time when Nelson Rockefeller (one of eight governors he’s served with) occupied the Capitol’s second floor and both houses were controlled by Republicans.

“One is that in recent years, the diversity of the Assembly membership in terms of both people of color and more women has been dramatic in the last several years,” he noted.

And the Legislature has certainly grown as an institution, distancing itself from the days when the smoke-filled rooms were literal and staff was often limited to one secretary who shared an office with eight lawmakers. That change is often attributed to the construction of the Legislative Office Building during the Rockefeller years. Once members had the space for employees, they began to hire them, and a professional staff soon emerged. But Gottfried describes a more deliberative causation.

“When we took the majority in 1975, a small band of Democrats led by Oliver Koppell, who went on to become attorney general, developed a package of rules changes that we got incoming Speaker Stanley Steingut to accept,” he said. “Those changes helped to create the modern Assembly. It opened up committee meetings to the general public, it provided that bills could only come to the floor if they were reported out of a substantive committee, unlike the Senate, where bills can be just pulled out of committee and plopped on the floor. We adopted the process that entitles a member to get a vote on a bill in committee whether the chairman wants it or not.

“And we got Steingut to do a radical redistribution of staff money directly to rank-and-file members and to create Assembly funding for district offices, which made individual Assembly members dramatically more independent and able to function on substance. And it also broke the back of Democratic county party leader control of the Assembly, when Steingut basically redistributed the wealth, because a lot of the Assembly payroll in those days was handed as patronage to Democratic county party leaders.”

That coincided with an overall improvement in the quality of staff members who were hired.

“The other major change, which began under the Republicans in the early ’70s, was the professionalization of the Assembly programmatic staff,” he said. “Perry Duryea as speaker put a lot of effort into creating a professional substantive staff, who were so good that when we took control after the ’74 election, we kept several of them on under the Democratic majority. And that has made the Assembly much more able to stand up for itself as a body against influence from lobbyists and governors.”

Gottfried’s first four years were “very frustrating,” he said, because he was in the minority. But that changed with the post-Watergate election of 1974, and today the Democratic majority is considered unassailable. He said he was able to learn a lot early on from both Steingut and Assembly counsel Ken Shapiro. As he came into his role as Health Committee chairman, he says that predecessor James Tallon and Health Commissioner David Axelrod were valuable tutors.

He is not the country’s longest-serving legislator — the all-time record belongs to a 91-year-old state senator in Wisconsin named Fred Risser, who has been in office since 1957.

Gottfried’s not likely to challenge that record, but he’s not exactly slowing down, either. “I certainly have no other plan but to keep doing this,” he said. “We never know what life will bring us, but my plan is to keep doing this for as long as I can.”

And barring any upheavals in the political status quo, it’s unlikely he’ll be forced out of his seat. It’s difficult to imagine the champion of same-sex marriage and single-payer health care being vulnerable to a challenge from the left, and a challenge from the right isn’t exactly a viable political strategy in Manhattan.

“There’s a reason Richard Gottfried is the longest serving legislator in New York State,” Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement. “His constituents send him back to the Assembly year after year because they know he’s on their side, fighting for them, their families and families across New York State. … New York is a better place because of Richard’s service, and I look forward to serving with him for years to come.”

Gottfried was interviewed by POLITICO on the last scheduled session day of the year, which frequently stretches well into the next morning. He didn’t seem to mind.

“As long as a couple of my bills pass, I don’t mind staying here a little longer,” he replied.