Interviews & Profiles

A new Republican in a Democratic world

Mike Lawler is the only GOP challenger to beat a Democratic incumbent in the Assembly this year.

Michael Lawler

Michael Lawler Randy Monceaux

Republicans lost more than they gained in the 2020 elections at the state legislative level, but they did unseat Democratic Assembly Member Ellen Jaffee of Rockland County. The race did not draw the same level of attention as competitive state Senate race, but a win by GOP challenger Mike Lawler, deputy town supervisor of Orangetown, highlights how there is still a political market in the New York City suburbs for Republicans who run towards the political center. 

City & State recently caught up with the 30-something legislator-elect to hear his thoughts on the race, his plans for the upcoming months and what issues can work for Republicans in a Democratic-dominated state government. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What issues did you campaign on this year?

Rockland County has the second-highest property taxes in America. The issue of affordability and taxes is front and center for a lot of people. Education – we get shortchanged on the state school aid formula. It treats us like upstate New York schools as opposed to those in Long Island and New York City. Transportation – the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is talking about eliminating rail service to Rockland County. That's an issue that matters to a lot of commuters, especially with congestion pricing. And then I focused heavily on the issue of public safety.

A lot of people in your party, from the president to state legislative candidates, say police reform is making New York City into a purported “anarchist jurisdiction” and that police reform means you're anti-cop. Do you agree with that take?

Crime has risen in New York City in different categories, and it's not just bail reform. Look at some of the decisions under the current mayor: non-enforcement of petty crimes, trying to shut down Rikers Island, defunding the police, eliminating the anti-crime unit. At the state level, you've had issues where unrepentant cop killers and child sex offenders are released on parole. There are certainly legitimate issues. My campaign wasn't about getting into incendiary rhetoric.

Ok, but do you agree with the rhetoric coming from other New York Republicans?

I take people at their word when they say “defund the police means defund the police.” It's an irresponsible strategy and approach; and it's something that I oppose. Law enforcement has been kind of put in a situation where they've had to clean up the mess for a lot of the decisions made by the politicians.

What about the president saying federal funds should be withheld from “anarchist jurisdictions?”

I don't think federal funds should be used as a bargaining chip.

You’re now a Republican lawmaker in a Democratic world, what gives you any leverage in policymaking?

Number one, I'm not going to be a potted plant. My objective is to raise issues for my constituents, the media, my colleagues and the public at-large and work in a bipartisan way. I'm going to have other members from the Rockland delegation who are in the majority, and I'll be seeking to work with them constructively.

Some state lawmakers are not so keen on wearing masks within the legislative chambers, what’s your take?

I had COVID back in March. I've been very understanding and empathetic to those who have suffered through it and I think we all have an obligation to do our part. I say to people: “If wearing a mask means that our businesses can stay open, that our kids can go back to school, that we can resume most of our normal functions, then wear the damn mask.” So I'll certainly be wearing the mask.

Any thoughts on what the state should do to confront the coronavirus before you take office in January?

We need to continue to encourage people to socially distance, avoid large scale events and wear a mask when out in public. One of the worst things we can do is shut down our economy and government again. But one thing I would also push for is that the state Legislature needs to return to regular order and rein in some of the governor's executive powers. I think he, in many respects, has gone beyond what was intended.