Dick Gottfried, champion of liberal causes, to retire after 52 years

In 1970, as the nation was embroiled in protests against civil rights and the Vietnam War, a childish, progressive, anti-war law student was elected to represent the West Side of Manhattan at the New York State Assembly.

23-year-old student Richard Gottfried became one of the state’s youngest elected lawmakers, and it didn’t take long for him to build a reputation as a champion of nobly idealistic but also often politically unworkable liberal policies. . although the concepts would later become popular within the party.

He spoke out in favor of legalizing prostitution in the 1970s, spearheaded legislation to decriminalize marijuana in 1977, and was the first lawmaker to introduce same-sex marriage bill in 2003.

Half a century and 26 elections later, Mr. Gottfried, now 74, holds the record for longest-serving lawmaker in New York history.

His career will end soon: Mr Gottfried will not stand for re-election next year and will retire at the end of his term in December, 18,993 days after his first swearing-in.

“It was a tough decision because I love what I do so much,” Mr. Gottfried, a Democrat, said Sunday from his Manhattan office on the 22nd floor, which overlooks City Hall and the East River. . “It’s truly a privilege to have spent your life doing a job that you truly love and to be able to retire when you still love to do it.

In 1987, he became chairman of the Assembly’s health committee, a perch he used to craft substantial healthcare policies, such as the legalization of medical marijuana in 2014 and a program aimed at providing free insurance for children from low- and modest-income families. .

Mr Gottfried, his once red-tinted beard now mostly white, has become a staple in Albany, testifying to the fact that the state has slowly shifted to the left and adopted many of the policies it has long supported.

It has evolved into a constant presence in a state capital defined by political turmoil and great personalities. He saw nine governors take office in Albany, including two Cuomos and the state’s first black and female governors. He has seen two of them resign in disgrace and legislate through fiscal crises, political coups and the arrest of a series of his colleagues in corruption cases that have tainted the reputation of the Capitol in the United States. ‘State.

Mr. Gottfried, known to most as Dick, is considered a lawmaker by his colleagues – a political nerd who often writes his own legislative language. Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie said in a statement that “Dick is a living encyclopedia” in health care, adding that he “set the standard for what it means to be a true citizen lawmaker. “.

Columbia Law School graduate Mr Gottfried ran for a seat in the State Assembly amid a wave of reform-minded Young Democrats who challenged the party’s formation and backed out opposed to the Vietnam War. He emerged victorious from a contested primary to represent a district that includes Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen and has been easily re-elected since.

“Children, that was what everyone called us,” he said. “I was 23 and very full of myself, and it never occurred to me to be bullied by someone else.”

Indeed, Mr. Gottfried, who The Times described in 1971 as looking “more like a page than a politician”, was refused entry to the Assembly Hall on his first day as a member of Parliament. as a new legislator. He remembered that a confused Sergeant-at-Arms told him, “Well, you’ll have to wait until your father gets here. “

Democrats were in the minority in the assembly, but, fueled by the fallout from the Watergate scandal, the party regained control of the chamber in 1974, a majority they have since held. Democratic oversight, Mr Gottfried said, has led to a host of lasting changes, including funding to create district offices and hire legislative staff and rule changes to ‘democratize’ the body and transfer power to chiefs. party.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a longtime friend who studied with Mr Gottfried at Stuyvesant High School and remembers sleeping in the same hotel rooms when he was Mr Gottfried’s assistant at first, said his former colleague would be remembered as “a tireless worker”.

“People take it for granted that members of the Assembly send out newsletters,” said Mr. Nadler, who was elected to the Assembly in 1976. “No one did it before Dick. He invented the concept. He wrote them, and then he had them printed and sent, and I think the Assembly paid for that only later.

Mr Gottfried, who took office in the final years of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s 14-year tenure, recalled the urgency for a series of high-stakes votes when Gov. Hugh Carey attempted to save the town of New York on the verge of bankruptcy. in the 1970s.

“Everyone had a sense of the importance of what we were doing and the potential that at some point things could really fall apart,” he said.

He won’t forget a 45-minute phone call he received in the late 1980s from Governor Mario M. Cuomo, who was upset because Mr. Gottfried told an administration official he believed that Mr. Cuomo was at war with the legislature. “I looked at my clock and thought to myself, ‘God, it’s budget season in Albany, doesn’t the governor have more important things to do than be on the phone with me ?'”

Then there was his relationship with Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, who resigned in August over allegations of sexual harassment. Mr. Gottfried, who has entered into grueling negotiations with Mr. Cuomo over his medical marijuana bill, took a 20-second pause to choose his words.

“I definitely had, like a lot of people, a lot more friction with Andrew Cuomo because that was often his style,” he said. “I think I’ll stop there.”

The most impressive governor? Mr Gottfried said Eliot Spitzer, who resigned after it emerged in 2008 that he had been a client of a high-end prostitution ring. “If it hadn’t been for self-destruction, we would have had eight years of very impressive progress, I’m sure,” he said.

Mr Gottfried served most of his tenure as Republicans controlled the state Senate, but estimated around 500 of his bills had passed.

He said one of his proudest accomplishments was the passage of the Hudson River Park Act in 1998 under Governor George E. Pataki, a three-term Republican, to protect part of the river in Manhattan as park, overcoming opposition from residents who believed it would lead to commercial development.

He also recalled an embarrassing blunder when trying to pass his bill to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The bill was introduced to the Assembly in May 1977 after an agreement was reached after weeks of negotiations, but it all happened very publicly after a roll call showed that the bill had six votes less.

“I thought I had the voices and it turned out I didn’t,” he said. “I think that was probably my biggest mistake by far.”

In recent years, Mr. Gottfried has become a revered mentor to a cohort of younger and more diverse left-wing lawmakers who helped Democrats regain full control of the state legislature in 2018. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat elected in 2012 to represent parts of Mr. Gottfried District in the State Senate, said Mr. Gottfried had “left an indelible mark on our laws”.

During his last year in office, Mr Gottfried said he hoped to channel his efforts towards one of his long-standing political aspirations: trying to pass the New York Health Act, a bill he first introduced in 1992 to create universal single-payer health coverage in the state.

In retirement, he hopes to spend more time with his granddaughters and travel with his wife for over 50 years, Louise Rubin, to Amsterdam and Taiwan. Mr. Gottfried, who lives on the Upper West Side, also plans to devote himself to his decades-long passion for Chinese calligraphy, which he has described as addicting.

“I will miss my colleagues and be able to translate my thoughts into law,” said Mr Gottfried. “This is what I dreamed of doing when I was 13, and I’ve been able to do it for half a century.”

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