By Sabina Mollot
On Thursday, December 7, Brian Kavanagh, who had served as Assembly member representing Manhattan’s 74th District for 11 years, took the oath of office for his new role as state senator. While his Assembly district, which included Stuyvesant Town, Waterside, Tudor City and a handful of other East Side neighborhoods, is now vacant, Kavanagh’s new beat, the 26th Senatorial District, formerly represented by Daniel Squadron, spans part of Brooklyn’s waterfront and much of Lower Manhattan.
Just days before Kavanagh officially began his new position, he met with a Town & Village reporter at a Pret sandwich shop near his legislative office (since the office itself was already packed up in boxes) to discuss his reason for switching chambers and how he still plans to fight for affordable housing.
So far, Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to call a special election for the race for Kavanagh’s Assembly seat or other vacant seats in Albany. But two Democrats, Harvey Epstein of the Urban Justice Center and City Council aide Mike Corbett have already declared their candidacy, with Marie Ternes, who worked for former Congress Member Anthony Weiner, considering running.
On his decision to leave the Assembly, Kavanagh said it was mainly out of a desire to serve a larger constituency (320,000 people over a wider geographic spread as opposed to the Assembly District’s 130,000).
“I will tremendously miss representing Stuyvesant Town and Murray Hill and Tudor City and all the communities I won’t represent anymore,” he said. “But my feeling is we need to get the Senate on board on rent regulations, election reform and gun violence. We’ve made enormous progress in the Assembly, but a lot of the work we do gets held up in the Senate.”
The Senate is currently Republican-controlled by a slim margin due to the Republican-aligned eight-member Independent Democratic Conference and Democratic State Senator Simcha Felder who votes with Republicans. Because Kavanagh’s Senate seat had previously been occupied by a Democrat, his taking over the position doesn’t do anything to change the balance of power. That said, he believes he can still get some items on the Democratic agenda passed.
“It is possible to get a lot done as a senator irrespective of who controls the house,” Kavanagh said, giving the example of his legislation that raised the income threshold for tenants who can be eligible for the SCRIE/DRIE rent freeze programs to $50,000. Previously, the income limits had been around $29,000 and $21,000 respectively.
Meanwhile, he’s “optimistic” about Democrats retaking the State Senate. He seemed equally hopeful about a recent attempt to re-align the Senate’s IDC members with the mainline Democrats as well as next year’s primary races. “I think there’s a lot of energy within the rank and file Democrats,” Kavanagh said. “The IDC is being perceived as being too comfortable working with the Republicans and I think that needs to change.”
While the transition for Kavanagh from one chamber to another is still a work in progress, for the past year, he’s had the additional challenge of not having a district office. Most of his Assembly staff’s operations were moved to the legislative office in Lower Manhattan, as well as various other places around the district like the aforementioned Pret. The reason for this is that last year Kavanagh lost the office space he’d been in for over a decade on First Avenue and 14th Street when the landlord decided to renovate the building. At two points since then, Kavanagh came close to inking a new lease, the most recent time at a building on East 23rd Street. However, he decided to pull out of the deal after the landlord reneged on a promise to make changes to the building that would have made it accessible to the disabled.
“It’s been challenging,” Kavanagh said, “but I don’t think it’s diminished our ability to serve though it’s made more travel time for me and my staff.”
He added that prior to his stepping down, issues that couldn’t be wrapped up by him or his staff would be referred to State Senator Brad Hoylman as well as Council Member Dan Garodnick and even his soon-to-be replacement, Keith Powers.
Asked about his accomplishments in the Assembly, Kavanagh said that while some of the bills ultimately didn’t get signed into law, he is still proud of the legislation passed at least in his own chamber on ongoing issues ranging from environmental/climate change policy to fighting manufacturers of toxic toys. In terms of things getting passed by both houses, Kavanagh considers his biggest accomplishment to be the strengthening of the rent laws each time they’ve come up for renewal since he took office. While he hasn’t been able to repeal vacancy decontrol or preferential rents, in previous years, he noted, the rent laws had only been weakened.
“Communities like Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village would have been decimated without rent laws being on the books,” he said.
He’s also proud of his involvement on the East Side Greenway, closing the gap between 38th and 61st Streets. Additionally, following the Sandy Hook massacre, a gun control measure called the SAFE Act is now law, and Kavanagh, chair of the NYS Legislators Against Gun Violence, believes New York State’s gun laws are now “some of the best in the country.”
Asked about what the most frustrating aspects of working in Albany have been so far, Kavanagh recalled a few, from the infamous Senate Democrat coup in 2009 to a few rather high-profile arrests. They include Eliot Spitzer, who took office as governor the same day Kavanagh did, being forced out in disgrace to the Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos being forced out in disgrace to the speaker of his own house, Sheldon Silver, being forced out in disgrace.
“That’s never a happy moment,” Kavanagh said. “To see (your colleagues) charged with crimes. To go to jail for these things they’ve done, even if they deserve it, it’s never a good thing to see. It diminishes people’s faith in government.”
On these experiences, Kavanagh mused, “You deal with what comes your way. It’s certainly been frustrating at times, but in my 11 years, I never thought there was something else I should be doing. It’s my job to work with people in good faith and get the best outcome I can.”
In his new position, Kavanagh said the top priority will still be preserving affordability due to the district’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like DUMBO and Greenpoint as well as the high volume of public housing in the two-borough district. Because of much of the district is along the waterfront – he also now represents Governor’s Island as well as “a jagged line across Manhattan” – coastal resiliency will continue to be another ongoing effort.
“The fundamental question is how do you protect the harbor from a storm like Sandy?” Kavanagh said. While he noted that a barrier has been proposed as part of the East Coast Resiliency Project, “it’s probably unrealistic for the whole coast of the harbor.”
He’ll also still be looking at ways to minimize the difficulty for commuters on the other side of the river when the L train tunnel gets shut down for repairs in 2019.
Other goals include continuing to push for election reform to make it easier to vote, and campaign finance reform, including closing the LLC Loophole.
It was 2006 when Kavanagh joined the Assembly, after beating Democrat Sylvia Friedman. Friedman had won a special election nine months earlier following Steven Sanders stepping down after 28 years in office. A year earlier, he’d run for the City Council’s District 2 seat, but lost the primary to Rosie Mendez.
Prior to that Kavanagh, who has a law degree from New York University, worked for other elected officials. He was chief of staff to then-Council Member Gale Brewer from 2002-2003 and was also policy director for the Department of Homeless Services under two mayors, David Dinkins and Ed Koch.
“Being a legislator is a great opportunity to do public service because you get to affect the way the whole system works, the way the $140 billion state budget gets spent,” Kavanagh said. “In this job you deal with issues on the ground in your own community and you get to deal with individual New Yorkers who are not getting the right service from a given agency and you get to fix that. It’s a unique and wonderful job.”
Now 50, Kavanagh had the opportunity to switch to the Senate last summer when Squadron, a friend as well as a roommate when in Albany, told him he was resigning. This was to get involved in a project aimed at getting more Democrats elected nationally. However, his move was widely criticized because the timing of it in August meant there would be no primary for Squadron’s Senate seat, and he was accused of trying to handpick his successor. Ultimately, Kavanagh was appointed as a Democratic nominee by party bosses and easily won reelection over an unknown Republican candidate in the General Election.
But according to Kavanagh, there was no secret plan between him and Squadron, and he only learned of his friend’s plan to resign a week before it was publicly announced.
Additionally, while he lived in Tudor City when taking office, he’d moved around the district a few times since then, including in 2013, to his current apartment in the East Village. This is what put him in Squadron’s Senate district rather than Brad Hoylman’s, where he’d been previously.
“It was a very quick decision,” Kavanagh said, but, he added, “It was not a hard decision for me.”