Interviews & Profiles
Assembly Member Amy Paulin explains how to get hundreds of bills signed into law
She’s one of the most prolific lawmakers in Albany, and the Westchester Democrat is showing no signs of slowing down.
Assembly Member Amy Paulin of Westchester is what you might call a legislator, legislator. A recent arrival at JFK Airport shows what this means. Her baggage was nowhere to be found after a long flight from Israel (where she was visiting one of her three children) and the chair of the powerful Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions was in a legislative state of mind. “I'm thinking to myself: ‘Let me see this process through without using any liaisons that I have or anything, just to see what happens with lost luggage,’” said Paulin, whose committee oversees airports like JFK. She learned of legal ambiguities surrounding whether the airline or the terminal were responsible for the misplaced luggage and confronted a helpline that was only available in Hebrew. “It’s just so bizarre,” she added. She may or may not ever introduce a bill to help others avoid similar situations in the future – that all depends on where, when and how she gets her baggage back – but it was just one of many examples of how Paulin approaches situations by considering their potential legislative consequences.
Her legislative oeuvre includes at least 1,740 bills overall – some of which were repeated from one two-year term into the next – nearly 300 of which have been signed into law since she first got elected in 2000. Compare that to your typical member of the Assembly who might only sponsor and pass a few bills every year. “She’s a model legislator,” Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz of the Bronx said in an interview. “Not only because she gets a very large number of bills passed (but also because) a lot of them are bills that deal with very weighty issues.” Reproductive health, gun control, animal rights, additional protections for survivors of domestic violence. Those are just a few of the causes Paulin has championed in the Legislature over the years.
The Brooklyn native, who moved to Westchester from Kings County decades ago, has gotten more bills signed into law than anyone else in the Assembly for three years running. Victories this year alone include new restrictions on gerrymandering at the local level and the repeal of the so-called walking while trans law and more than two dozen other bills signed into law with the support of activists and fellow lawmakers. There is no big secret to her success, however. Many bills she gets through the state Legislature through persistence and a willingness to compromise. “If she wants to engage on an issue, you better know what you’re talking about,” political consultant Evan Stavisky, who has worked with her in the past, said in an interview. “She will engage stakeholders in good faith and try to ensure that New York’s enacting the best possible policies, and that’s the hallmark of a great legislator.”
Paulin first came to the state Capitol as a part time legislative staffer in the 1970s while she was an undergraduate and graduate student at the University at Albany – but her real education in the byzantine ways of Albany began after she got elected to the Assembly at the turn of the millennium. An eagerness about the legislative process attracted mentors like Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, who helped her get bills through both chambers during her first term in office. She recalled one bill aimed at allowing nurses and pharmacists to dispense emergency contraceptives. “Without his help, I could have never written something as complicated as that bill,” she said. “His pen was all over it.” Gov. George Pataki would end up vetoing that specific bill in 2005 for reasons that included a lack of age restrictions. Dozens of other bills she got signed into law, however, began making her a name as one of the more productive members of the Assembly by the mid-2000s.
The legislative process is simple enough in theory, but much more complicated in practice in the state Assembly. Lawmakers typically have their bills written by attorneys at the Bill Drafting Commission, or like Paulin, by members of their own staff. These bills then have to get on a committee agenda. That often requires getting the backing of influential staff who work for Assembly leadership as well as powerful committee chairs. And even when a bill gets out of one committee, it might still have to go through another committee like Ways and Means, which oversees spending, before the bill has any chance of reaching the Assembly floor for a vote. Controversial bills need to have debate times scheduled. That can mean pestering the floor counsel in some instances or even going to Speaker Carl Heastie, who did not respond to a request for comment, on particularly tricky bills.
Potential roadblocks are present each step of the way, but Paulin has developed a few insights over the years. Some committee chairs like Gottfried like to be involved in the nuances of writing a bill from the relative get go while others want things cleared with central staff first, according to Paulin. Another important part of the unofficial lawmaker process is getting other lawmakers to add their names as co-sponsors. Listing key committee chairs’ names first never hurts, she learned over time, nor does calling up potential allies. “If they don't call me back, I will make a meeting,” Paulin added. “I don’t let go.” There are hundreds of bills that reflect the Paulin way of getting things done, but arguably none more so than a piece of legislation she ranks as her greatest legislative triumph – a 2006 law that eliminated the statutes of limitations on cases of rape and other sexual offenses.
Getting this bill passed was no easy task. Some of her Democratic colleagues had concerns about eliminating the statutes of limitations entirely, Paulin recalled 15 years later. So she and her allies distributed a fact sheet on the bill to colleagues before a meeting of the Democratic conference. “Silver says, ‘Well, we can do it this way and that way and I remember getting up in conference and slamming my hands on the table and saying ‘No, we have to have a law,’” Paulin said. She also told colleagues about her own experience with sexual assault as a teenager. “It took a lot of guts to even bring it up – these are not things that many people want to talk about, but she was so committed,” Dinowitz said in an interview. Then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver co-sponsored the bill, and Republican state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Long Island, who sponsored the bill in his then-GOP-controlled chamber, was the first name listed on the bill that Pataki signed into law.
The whole experience with that bill was key to Paulin’s refined approach to legislation in the subsequent years. “I learned that a combination of hard work, passion and bringing your colleagues along can make anything happen,” she said. Her legislative output grew to about 150 bills introduced each two-year term she served in the chamber, with about 15 of them getting signed into law each year. “She is without a doubt the most prolific member of the Assembly,” said Westchester County Executive George Latimer, a former Democratic member of both chambers of the state Legislature during an era when the GOP mostly controlled the state Senate. “No Democratic Assembly member was better than she was at identifying a Republican that would carry a particular bill and help get it through the process.” Many of the bills championed by Paulin – such as an implemented ban on circus elephants and a bill that she has not passed yet on medical marijuana for pets – concern animal welfare, no surprise for an avowed poodle lover. Many more address parochial concerns like local tax rates and services, niche issues like the prospective right of New Yorkers to become human compost or more controversial topics like gun control.
An average member of the Assembly by comparison might get a few bills done while a dozen or so members in the 107-member Democratic majority account for a disproportionate number of the bills that pass the chamber and become law, according to a review of legislative records. There are many reasons for that, but an important one to keep in mind is how different legislators approach their job. Some pride themselves on helping their constituents navigate the state bureaucracy while others view themselves as activists who can use the bully pulpit of elected office. Paulin is one of those lawmakers who takes her job particularly literally, and she has acquired some advantages over time. She now chairs a committee overseeing important agencies like the Port Authority of the State of New York and New Jersey. Her relationships with Westchester leaders like state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Latimer go back to the 1990s when she was making a name for herself in local politics as a member of the League of Women Voters and her local town board. One Republican staffer said some GOP legislators actively seek out influential Democratic members like Paulin with their own legislative ideas. “That's the way to get things passed; I don't care,” Long Island Republican Assembly Member David McDonough said of giving Paulin the idea for legislation she introduced to license and regulate pet groomers.
Like other longtime legislators, Paulin has seen the political landscape change around her in a Legislature that now includes a growing number of outspoken socialists. “When I first came in, I was considered a progressive, and now I'm considered more moderate,” she said. This dynamic has led to conflict between relative moderates like Paulin and colleagues in both chambers. One recent example was the debate surrounding a multibillion dollar relief fund for undocumented workers who were ineligible for other COVID-19 relief funds. Paulin said she was among the legislators pushing to include a requirement that applicants show they were state residents throughout the pandemic. Some supporters of the fund saw such a provision as standing in the way of getting an Excluded Workers Fund approved in the state budget. “If you are willing to stand against what these folks have more than earned through the blood, sweat and tears that they put into our communities every day,” state Senate Health Chair Gustavo Rivera said at the time at a demonstration on Empire State Plaza outside the state Capitol. “Then guess what. You don’t get to do legislation with me.” He even told City & State at that time that he would never back a Paulin bill again.
Rivera later apologized, and a spokesperson told City & State “all is well” between the two lawmakers. Assembly Member Amanda Septimo, a first-term lawmaker from the Bronx who publicly clashed with Assembly Member Tom Abinanti of Westchester on the issue of the Excluded Workers Fund, said Paulin’s diplomatic approach went a long way toward showing her how to get big things done in office. “Amy and I don't share all the same politics, but I certainly think that we're friends,” Septimo said in an interview. “She’s just an exceptionally skilled communicator.” In a workplace where legislating is the nominal goal, Paulin evidently has many friends. Some of them are new while others are the longtime collaborators like Gottfriend and Dinowitz who make up a regular dinner group with Paulin, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan and Assembly Member Sandy Galef of the Hudson Valley.
Her ability to work with people with different ideologies has likely also helped her coast to reelection in a district that includes affluent Scarsdale as well as other areas of Westchester County that have become more racially and economically diverse during her time in the Assembly. While other longtime legislators have faced primary challenges in recent years, Paulin appears safe for now, especially considering that she has more than half a million dollars in her campaign account, according to her most recent filings with the state. She says she has no plans to run for higher office or to ever become speaker. She would rather spend her time focusing on all the bills she has yet to pass. She introduced a career-high 237 bills and added her name to nearly 300 more as a co-sponsor this year. A total of 28 of them were signed into law by publication time, but she is still hoping for more in the final weeks of the year when governors traditionally decide the fate of hundreds of pieces of outstanding legislation. Then a new year will begin and Paulin will be back at work. “On my tombstone it’ll say: ‘Best bill passer,’” Paulin said a friend recently quipped. “I was always a very hard worker and always someone who was determined to be the best.”
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