Alessandra Biaggi is a former counsel for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a top aide on the Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign. Now, she’s taking on state Sen. Jeff Klein in the Democratic primary. City & State talked to Biaggi about her motivations for running in the Bronx neighborhoods once represented by her grandfather Mario in Congress, her thoughts on the sexual misconduct allegation against Klein, and whether she expects to receive support from state Democrats in her primary bid to unseat the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference – a breakaway faction that shares power with Republicans.
C&S: What made you decide to run against Jeff Klein?
AB: I think the biggest reason is that I - when I looked around at the leadership around me, and I wasn't able to see the type of leader that I wanted… And that is also because when I realized that my state senator was part of the IDC, and learned about the IDC in early 2017 and started to really dig into what was going on… And the more that I got into it, the more that I realized not only was it a threat to progressive politics in New York, and the Democrats, but that the leader was in my district. And that was quite a surprise, and it took me a little while I think to really get my hands on the issues and understand what was going on because on the surface it's quite tricky. It doesn't seem as if there are progressive pieces of legislation being blocked or that there are backroom deals happening. But the more that I studied and read up on it, I realized this was a real problem and a real threat to New York being true blue and I had to step up.
C&S: What do you think you bring to the table?
AB: I think I bring the experience of having worked in politics on a presidential race: I understand how politics works. Also working at the highest levels of state government, I understand how legislation is passed, I understand how alliances are formed, I understand who needs to be at the table… My incredible passion for the community, for seeing the potential of what this community could be... And, to be really honest, I think that being young is actually a benefit, is a positive thing, because what I intend to do is bring a real fresh approach to politics. It may not be popular, but it would be doing the right thing. So I would always choose to do what's right, even if it means going against what's popular. And what that means to me is sticking and staying true to my Democratic and progressive values, and not selling out on those things.
C&S: Have you started campaigning around the district? Do you sense any desire for a fresh face in politics?
AB: Yes. Before I actually announced I did some canvassing, and what it brought to my attention was, first of all, that people were really excited to have somebody come to their door that wanted to listen. I think that also goes to your first question: I intend to listen... I think that the overarching feeling is that people are just starting to come to when it comes to the IDC, and if they didn't know about it – of course I asked them about it – if they didn't know about it, I took one minute to explain to them what that meant, and at the end of that sentence, they always were shocked, and then said, "You know, I have to do some research, this is so shocking to me, and I thought that we were true blue and our state senator was a real Democrat…” So there's a lot of excitement and there's also a strong desire, I think, for change. And I think people are quite frankly angry about the fact that they thought that their state senator was a Democrat, and he's not.
C&S: There's currently this delicate balance of power in the state Senate with the IDC, the Republicans, and the Democrats. But it appears as if the mainline Democrats and may want to reunify with the IDC and may not want to have any primaries against IDC members. So, have you heard anything from the Democratic Party? Do you think you'll be getting support, or perhaps not supported?
AB: I haven't heard anything from the Democratic Party, and I've chosen to make this decision right now, based on the facts that I have, which are that our state senator is the head of a group that is not allowing New York to be in a Democratic majority, and it's hard to say what kind of support will happen down the line. I think that right now what we're seeing is a new wrench thrown into the mix in many regards, and so, I don't know if the deal will hold up. I think that time will tell. I think that this new piece of information will have to unfold in a very responsible way, and I hope that it does unfold in a responsible way, and I think that regardless of the support I'm going to keep on marching forward because I am able to identify the bigger picture, which is that I would be a better state senator than Jeff Klein, because I will represent the individuals of the district and the things that they want.
C&S: I assume this new information you're talking about are the allegations of sexual misconduct against Sen. Klein? (Klein was recently accused by a former staffer of forcibly kissing her. Klein denies the allegation.)
AB: That's correct.
C&S: I just want to get your opinion on that. I know that you've written on Twitter about it, so what would you like to see happen in response to the allegation?
AB: I want to make very clear that behavior like this is, of course, unacceptable in any environment, especially in a state government and especially in Albany and especially in New York… New York is a leader in this nation and other states look to us and our leadership, and so we are held to a very high standard, and we have an obligation to maintain that standard.
The second thing is that I think women who are coming forward to speak up about sexual abuse, they need to be believed. And that's an important fact and I stand behind that 100 percent.
The third thing is that the IDC members' responses, and the Senate Republicans' is really part of - right now it's part of the problem across the country, across the world, right? Their response automatically assuming that Erica (Klein’s accuser) was lying is unacceptable, because what it does is, it silences women's voices. And so, in my opinion, this is such a unique opportunity. Any time that we have a sexual allegation come to the light, any time this happens, there's an opportunity for leadership that we're just not seeing. We're seeing it in some states, at some levels, but I think that we're missing the mark here. I think that as a legislator, all of them have an opportunity to say, "OK, let's hold some space for someone to speak up and then address it. And so the fact that they automatically knee-jerk responded and said, "Oh no, that's - she's lying, and Sen. Klein is a great guy." And then of course, there are women coming out and saying, "Yeah, he's a great guy, and I've known him for so long." That latter part of "he's a great guy and I've known him for so long" is not in contrast to the fact that he could have done this. In fact, both things can be true. Those set of women that support him could have had a positive experience, and Erica could've had a negative experience. But the response of automatically assuming that Erica is lying does not hold the space for both of those truths to be possible, and I think that it's really doing a disservice to the members of this district and also of the state.
C&S: Do you support him stepping down? Do you support him staying in place but having there be an investigation?
AB: I think that there should be an independent investigation… I would like to see support from our state senators in that direction, and then I would like for the space to be held for Erica Vladimer to be able to say, "This is what happened." Let her present her case, and give her the space to do it, and not intimidate her into being quiet and going back into a corner, which is what happens to a lot of women. And to be quite honest with you, I think that that's the thing that makes me the most angry and upset, because it's like, if you're automatically saying women are lying and they haven't even said the second in their sentence, how can women in the future feel comfortable coming forward.
C&S: You talked a little bit before this about the issues that are important to the people in your district. Could you give me a rundown of what those are?
AB: I want to preface that by saying something to you, because I think this is very important. For the next few months, I'm being very careful to examine all of the issues in the district and in the state, frankly, before taking any strong, formal position on them. But that said, there are certainly some things that I 100 percent stand for. And that ranges from boosting our economy and making sure there are good jobs and also preparing the district for the future, because whether we like it or not, future industries are coming for us and we have to make sure that our children are prepared for it, as well as our adults. Because a lot of things are going to be automated and that's a big deal. Women's rights are a big priority of mine. I think that what we've seen is a constant – I'm doing air quotes – quote unquote support of women's rights from Jeff Klein, but when push comes to shove, we're not really seeing much action there. Our educational system… the district that I'm in is very diverse. And that actually is – it's an exciting challenge for me, because parts of the district have all of the opportunities that they could possibly want for their children and their schools, but then other parts don't. And so I think what is really important is making sure that not just children in a wealthy part of the district get opportunities, but that children in a (low) socioeconomic part of the district, that is not as wealthy or as privileged, also has similar opportunities…
I will be the first person to say that I do not have all of the answers, but I am ready to figure out what they are, and I'm ready to learn what they are, and I'm ready to surround myself with people who are going to help to educate me, and a big part of the education is talking to as many voters as possible.
NEXT STORY: Jumaane Williams on his wild week