New York State

Monica Martinez, state Senate centrist

Monica Martinez discusses her first months in office, what she likes and dislikes in the budget and what a native of El Salvador thinks about driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Monica Martinez.

Monica Martinez. Monica Martinez for State-Senate

For most of Long Island’s history, its representatives in the state Senate have been white men. But with the election of state Sen. Monica Martinez, a new type of leader is emerging on the island.

The former Suffolk County legislator was elected as part of the Democratic “blue wave” that gave the party large majorities in the Assembly and state Senate. However, a recent vote on gun control and her stated positions on issues like recreational marijuana legalization and free college tuition show that she is carving out an identity as a moderate in the chamber.

City & State recently caught up with Martinez to discuss her first months in office, what she likes and dislikes in the budget and what a native of El Salvador thinks about driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your “revenge porn” bill passed the Legislature. What’s it like to pass your first bill?

I carried this bill as a Suffolk County legislator so it was definitely a priority for me to bring it up to the state level. As soon as I came in, I spoke to the former sponsor, who was (Republican) state Sen. Phil Boyle. He joined me as a sponsor as he has been trying to pass this for quite some time. Honestly, I looked into what was the delay in terms of why it hadn’t passed all these years. It was the Internet Association (a global trade organization of major web companies) that had put blocks on some legislation, so I met with them to ask what would be a good compromise. They (were concerned that they) may not have knowledge that an intimate image has been put on their sites, and worried that they would be held liable if they did not take it down. We found language that they were comfortable with and it all worked out.

What are some things you are keeping an eye on in the state budget process?

I have been a very vocal against the legalization of marijuana from the beginning. The tax cap is also a very important thing, but we also have to keep in the back of heads that our schools have their hands tied. We need to find a ways to allow our schools to govern as well as educate our children with a quality and sound education and unfortunately sometimes the tax cap holds them back. Therefore we have to find different avenues to help them in order for them to able to fund security for their buildings, to make sure they have enough personnel and teachers, and building aid.

Do you think fully funding Foundation Aid, as state Sen. Robert Jackson would put it, is the right was to meet those needs?

As lawmakers, we’ve got to see how our schools are set up. Each school is different. Each region is different. We can’t put every single school under one umbrella because they are all different. New York City is completely different from Long Island and we have different needs. I want to make sure that whatever is done to Foundation Aid, the building aid, you name it, it has to be done according to the region.

The governor has said you got to look at per-pupil spending at the school level rather than by district level. What do you think?

I think schools should be able to govern themselves. Obviously, we understand that they get state funding, they get federal funding, but the schools know their kids best. The schools, the teachers, the administrators, they know what their schools need. When you tie their hands, it does not allow them to do what they need to do. We also have to be cognizant that Long Island has become a very transient area. You have students who go from one area to another. We have an influx of undocumented students. We have to make sure that we provide them the education they need.

Amid all the recent conflict between the governor and state Senate Democrats, how do you think the proposal to allow driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants will play out for Long Island senators compared with the rest of your colleagues?

I can tell you that the executive branch and the Legislature are different bodies and we’re co-equal branches of government. Therefore, the one thing as elected officials that we cannot do is pit one another against the other. My big priority is always public safety, making sure that our law enforcement is able to ensure safety in our communities. We also have to make sure that we listen to different groups. As of right now, those conversations are ongoing so I could not say where the Long Island Six are at on this. Other regions of the state could be different, but this is a collective decision for us to make. For me personally, I haven’t made up my mind either. There are too many unanswered questions.

The Assembly Committee on Health recently passed the New York Health Act. What is your position on single-payer health care?

Do I believe that individuals should have affordable health care? I think as the bill stands now, it does not do that. I think there is still a lot to do to this bill. As of right now, I have not taken a position whether I agree or not.

As an immigrant and a woman, what does your election show about how Long Island is changing?

My mother came on her own and my mother just ventured out herself to make sure it was the right thing to do. She stayed here for two years on her own just trying to figure it out. After two years, she found a sound job. She went to school at night to learn the language and then we all came over. (Martinez said in a follow-up conversation that her family came legally to the United States from El Salvador through a visa program, not with Temporary Protected Status.) The sacrifices that she made is the reason that I never want to let her and my father down. Who knows where we would be if we were still there. There was civil unrest. We might not even be living today. For me, this is a journey that I respect my parents for doing. Because I know that the opportunities were there for me, I know that opportunities could be there for others. I believe there should be a pathway to citizenship just like I had a pathway. Every child should have the ability to go to school to learn. But I owe a whole bunch in loans so I honestly don’t believe in free education because I didn’t have a free education. I worked my way to where I am today. Long Island is changing. I represent a very diverse district, from low-income, high-minority areas to very affluent areas. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what matters is the journey you’ve been through.