Representing Greenpoint and Williamsburg for almost half a century, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol faces one of the few primary challenges in his career from Emily Gallagher, a local activist and member of Brooklyn Community Board 1.
In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young, progressive upstart, defeated Joe Crowley, a career politician and longtime U.S. Congressman, to win a seat in the House of Representatives representing Queens. Echoes of that narrative, an upstart candidate running an uphill campaign against a party mainstay, have reached North Brooklyn.
Lentol is an institution in North Brooklyn with more than 47 years in elected office, fighting for more green space in the 50th Assembly District and pushing for criminal justice reform at the state level. Greenpointers spoke with Assemblyman Lentol to discuss how his platform has changed in the midst of a pandemic and protests against police brutality ahead of the June 23rd primary elections.
Note: This interview was conducted prior to the incidents between the NYPD and protestors in Williamsburg on Thursday night, to which Lentol condemned violent policing.
The interview has also been edited and condensed for clarity.
To voters who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself and explain why you’re running for reelection to the Assembly?
I’ve been in office for a while, and I have a long record of accomplishment. Especially now that I’ve gained a lot of seniority, I’ve been able to do things that I wasn’t able to do as a junior member in the legislature. That not only helps enact good legislation, but it also helps our district. I intend to continue in that vein.
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Reforming the criminal justice system has been my life’s work. -Reforming bail and criminal discovery laws -Passed a law requiring video taping of police interrogations -Reformed Rockefeller Drug Laws, which targeted communities of color and fostered a culture of mass incarceration instead of treating drug addiction -Raised the age of criminal responsibility, which diverts young/nonviolent offenders to treatment programs instead of prison -Passed speedy trial reform so the accused does not languish in jail I intend to fight and build upon these accomplishments to make our criminal justice system transparent and fair, including to pass the repeal of 50a, HALT solitary confinement, and the STAT Act.
The death of George Floyd has reverberated across the nation, with protests erupting across New York City. Do you think police brutality is an issue in North Brooklyn, and if so, what policies would you support to combat it if reelected?
I don’t know if it’s an issue in North Brooklyn, but it is an issue in New York state, and I represent the entire state. I think the time has come to finally repeal 50-a, a statute that was passed that protects the police officers’ personnel record from being used against them in court. It’s an anachronism now and I think the events that happened in Minneapolis show us that we need to repeal that statute.
Then there are also other reforms that I’m championing, like the STAT Act, for example, that I believe we should fight to pass, which gives statistics for who gets arrested and what race they are. Right now, there is no law throughout the state or even in New York City that requires racial information to determine whether or not people who are arrested have been arrested in a way that’s been discriminatory.
No one could have anticipated COVID-19 when the race for the 50th Assembly District began. How has COVID-19 changed your campaign and what pandemic-related issues would you tackle if reelected to the Assembly?
People are adopting dogs now and cats because of the pandemic. Especially in the time when they’re sick and have to stay home, they’re wanting to have an animal. We still see a persistence in the ACC [Animal Care Center] in euthanizing animals that don’t need to be euthanized. I’ve introduced a bill to stop them because I’ve seen incidents in some other publications that animals have been euthanized that have been perfectly healthy and ought to be adopted.
The most important bill that I’ve introduced that has now come to fruition is the Compassionate Helper Bill. The most terrible thing about this pandemic is that people die alone. I thought that nobody at all was addressing that problem. Fortunately, with a little bit of pressure that we put on the governor, we introduced a bill to require the hospitals to do this. And the governor and hospital association reached an agreement to have a pilot program. Beginning this week, there will be compassionate helpers who will be outfitted with PPE to sit with and care for people who are afflicted by the virus.
What legislation, bills or ideas do you have that would counter the aftereffects of the pandemic?
My office has handled hundreds, maybe thousands, of complaints from people who are unable to get unemployment insurance. I think I have the best constituent service office in the country because we really help people.
I’ve introduced legislation that will allow a voucher system similar to the one that was dashed last week by the legislature that would be effective mostly for the poor who can’t afford to pay their rent and also for not-for-profit tenant advocates who own some property where folks who can’t afford to pay rent live.
In addition to that, I’ve been actively advocating for small business protection in Albany by way of contacting insurance companies or businesses interruption insurance relief. I know, and most of my colleagues understand, that if the help doesn’t come from the federal government, we don’t have money to bail out these businesses.
What do you think is the most pressing problem facing the 50th Assembly District?
The most pressing problem is people being able to live right now and people being able to eat. I’ve been very active with the North Brooklyn Angels, providing money to them, my own money, as well as providing them with donors and helping the efforts to feed people. I’ve also been able to convince the city to put out additional food locations around the district and in the district so people can get food.
And of course, we have forgiven people’s rent for the time being. There’s a moratorium on rent as well as a moratorium on mortgages for homeowners and that’s going to solve the problem for a while.
Just to do a quick fact check, I don’t think there’s a moratorium on rent. There’s a moratorium on evictions.
Sorry. That’s what I meant. We were talking about rent, and I talk about rent all the time. Poor choice of words. Of course, I meant that.
The moratorium on eviction processes, the courts aren’t open anyway, but when the courts open up they won’t be able to handle cases until the expiration of the moratorium.
Is there anything you’d like to communicate to voters?
I’ve been endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters, other environmental groups, the Working Families Party, the UFT, the Parents Pact, the Nurses Association, who during the pandemic decided to endorse me over my opponent, the 32BJ SEIU, District Council 37, New York State United Teachers, the Retail Merchants Association, and I may be leaving out a few I can’t remember right now. I’m proud to have those endorsements, because I think I’ve earned them.
Oh and by the way, I’ve been able to use the seniority I have and the resources that that state has at its disposal to help schools in my district. Some are very old and often need a lot of help. I’m proud of that because I try to use that money wisely. I hope we’ll be able to go back to those buildings soon.
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Representing your community means advocating for your community. I’m proud of my work advocating for #environmentaljustice: ▪️Fighting a fossil fuel pipeline in North Brooklyn ▪️Stopping garbage waste transfer stations in district ▪️Shutting down incinerators in district ▪️Stopping the largest ever gas powered generator proposed for our waterfront ▪️ Establishing 4 parks for more #openspace: East River State Park, Bushwick Inlet Park, Under the K Bridge Park, Manhattan Avenue – Street End Park ▪️ Passing the strongest #climatejustice legislation to put New York State on a path towards #renewableenergy ▪️Working to clean up Newtown Creek & Meeker Avenue Plumes ▪️ Funding #science & environmental justice programs at local schools I am committed to continuing the fight for environmental justice & expanding open space. Learn more at joelentol.com!