Senator José Serrano on the Election and Island Issues

Senator José Serrano loves telling people about Roosevelt Island because, he says, “There really isn’t any other place like it in New York.” As part of our ongoing politics and election series, we sat down with the senator to hear his perspective on Island issues and the current political tone of the upcoming elections.

Affordable Housing

“I am concerned about affordable housing, not just on Roosevelt Island, but throughout the 29th District and indeed throughout the five boroughs of New York. As the years go by, you start to see a city where it is harder and harder for working-class individuals to be able to live and raise their families. The loss of [the] Mitchell-Lama [affordable housing program] was profoundly felt in a place like Roosevelt Island. Without there being a plan for a Mitchell-Lama 2.0, we are left with very difficult alternatives.

“Over the last 12 years we’ve lost, throughout the city, 400,000 units of rent-stabilized apartments because of vacancy decontrol. I am the sponsor of legislation S951 [formerly S1040], which would repeal the vacancy bonus: a particularly onerous way that landlords hike up the rent by 20%, thereby getting much quicker to the vacancy decontrol threshold whereby that apartment is no longer protected. Hopefully that bill will pass this year.

“Not having affordable housing is not only bad for residents, but businesses, you know. The tax base in a community is not made of the super wealthy, it is made of those who rely on affordable housing.”

Cornell Tech

“A lot of [the decisions about the Cornell campus] happen on the City level but, in general terms, I have been supportive of the Cornell Tech project going back to the Bloomberg administration. [Cornell Tech] offers an opportunity for Roosevelt Island to have a certain level of economic growth. This new campus has really put Roosevelt Island on the map.

“There are a lot of [new] possibilities [for the Island] as a result of Cornell hopefully being a good neighbor. That’s part of what elected officials should strive for: to encourage the larger entity, in this case Cornell, to continue to be a good neighbor; and to create a public benefit for everyone on the Island, especially from the educational point of view, because this is an educational institution and it should lend itself to that.”

Island Governance

“The way that [Island] governance is structured is very complex. Trying to explain this city-state entity gets very confusing. I am of the mindset that in any incarnation of government, more local community control and more transparency always make a good recipe for success.

“When you have a situation like this – a population that wants to be more involved – they should be given the opportunity to have self-governance to the extent that it allows them to be more vested, that they feel a level of confidence.

“We have a very active resident association [Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association] on the Island. Residents are very astute regarding the issues involving their governance. I don’t live on Roosevelt Island, and I think that the folks who do should ultimately have the say as to the type and level of self-governance they feel works for them and that provides the level of transparency they are looking for.

“I have confidence in Governor Cuomo and his ability to appoint people to the Island, and for there to be processes in place that allow Island residents to have a significant hand in the governance on the Island.”

RIOC Board Elections

“[Turning RIOC into an elected board] is really about continuing to push, continuing to make the case. I think Island residents are doing their part.

“As an elected official, it is my job to get together with colleagues like Assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright and to speak with administration officials and encourage them to address vacancies on the board or reappointments on the board in a timely fashion. My intention is to do that soon.

“This is an ongoing process; we’ve had conversations in the past with commissioners and with the Governor’s chief of staff. I feel confident that there is a level of understanding that we need to move forward on these items. Often in government, in a democracy, things don’t move as quickly as they should, but it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen, so I think it is important that we work together as a team to address these issues.”

Being a State Senator

“I have been an elected official for 15 years, and I never thought when I was younger that I would be where I am now. It is still an amazing job with a tremendous amount of honor that I feel being able to do this.

“It is not always easy, especially when there is a level of frustration. People want to get things done very quickly and [don’t] understand that, in the type of democracy that we have, there is a lot of compromise and discussion that doesn’t lend itself to immediate action. I knew going in the challenges that are inherent to this job.

“Aside from that, I think we do have the best democracy in the world; it is still so much better than alternatives that we see in other places.

“As an elected official I think the work we do is strictly for [constituents]. The thrust of my work is constituent outreach because I believe that, first and foremost, we were elected to craft a State budget that reflects the needs of our constituents.

“I just love doing this job from a grassroots point of view.”

The Future

“Honestly, I never thought I’d get this far. I was a City Council member in 2001, the only insurgent that beat an incumbent. Three years later, an opportunity presented itself when a lot of people came to me and asked me to run for the State Senate against a Republican, and I was successful.

“I don’t consider myself to be an extremely ambitious elected official because I believe that sometimes that ambition, while it sounds exciting and intriguing to some, takes away from the task at hand. And I believe that if you do the task at hand really well, then sometimes things come up down the road – or they don’t, but you are in a far better position if you concentrate on what is in front of you.”

Presidential Race

“This has been, I think, one of the most astounding presidential races in modern times. There has been such blatantly stark divisiveness on the part of one candidate. I’ve always been a very progressive, left-leaning elected official, a liberal if you would call it that, but even as a child listening to Ronald Reagan or George Bush, even if I deeply disagreed with 90% of what they were saying, I still believed that they cared very deeply about all of us, and I am worried because this time, with certain candidates, I don’t feel very confident about that.

“I think that the public has been caught off guard by so many of the things that have been said. This is an opportunity for us to really show that inclusiveness – and not even tolerance (I don’t like that word ‘tolerance’ because it sounds like you are just going to tolerate people, I prefer ‘celebrate’). Let’s celebrate the diversity of this community. Let’s celebrate the fact that we are a nation of immigrants, because that is really how we got so good!

“As a nation we endeavored to do something that had never been done before – to create a country based on individuals, from other places, who were willing to build something out of nothing. And, in 200 short years, we created the greatest nation on earth with this model.

“It astounds me when I hear people today talk about how our diversity is anything but our greatest strength. That’s how we got to be the envy of all nations, the trend-setters and innovators, the place where people come to leave behind bigotry.

“We need to continue to remind ourselves that we are the United States and we built ourselves on celebrating this diversity. Let’s not lose sight of that.”

Tags: RIRA RIOC Cornell Affordable Housing Representation & Governance Jose Serrano Dana Agmon

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