State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi has never been fearful of a political challenge. In 2018, then-candidate Biaggi defeated Jeff Klein, the head of the Independent Democratic Conference, in a political upset that helped to reshape the Democratic Party in the upper chamber. During her time in the state Senate, Biaggi helped to bring awareness to sexual harassment and revamp the state Senate Committee on Ethics. Last year, after Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney forced freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones to leave his district, Biaggi announced she would primary him. Although the state senator ultimately lost the primary and her seat in the upper chamber, Biaggi has no regrets. In an interview with City & State, Biaggi reflected on her tenure in the state Senate and looked ahead to her political future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment during your time in the state Senate?
My greatest accomplishment is and continues to be the work we did around sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence. The fact that we were able to really push different colleagues and our governments to hold the first hearing in 27 years in Albany about sexual harassment in the workplace – and then not just hold a hearing but then actually pass laws to make New York have some of the strongest laws in the country around. That is exactly why it's an example of why I was elected and why so many new people were elected in 2018 and 2019.
There is something else that doesn't get as much attention that I'm really proud of. I asked for the Ethics Committee because I felt strongly about bringing ethics reforms and the reform around our government to life. The ethics committee was a committee that had only met two times in 10 years before I became the chair. It was also a committee that we had to change the rules on the first day so that we were all sworn in because it was a committee that couldn't actually have bills go through it or hold its own hearings. So changing the rules of the committee to make it actually come to life and be real so that we actually could hold hearings and do things that actually allowed us to consider how to reform our government is something I will be forever very proud of. It's something I hope continues because it's a very important part of our government working for people.
As you approach the end of your time in the state Senate, is there anything that you feel is unresolved that you would have liked to accomplish?
I think even if I was in the Legislature for 50 or 70 years, I would still feel like I would have more work to do because there are always ways to make policy better, make laws stronger, or introduce legislation that can accomplish something that makes our state better. But something that I look forward to watching my colleagues take over the finish line is the Fashion Act – which is a bill to regulate the fashion industry and give it the guidelines that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from some of the largest distributors in the world, and also address the labor issues that surround the industry. That’s one and the other is to close the voluntary participation loophole. Right now in New York, if you are drunk while you are raped, you will not be able to seek justice. I have a lot of faith that these are things that will get done.
You gave up your seat in the state Senate to run for Congress in the Hudson Valley. Knowing what you know now, do you have any regrets about running for Congress?
No, none actually. One thing that I am very aware of (that I think other people can be aware of too) is that when you know that you're done in a place or done with a role, and it's time for you to leave, you leave. I felt very clear on the fact that I felt complete with my time in the state Senate. Had I not felt that way, I think I would feel a tremendous amount of grief or regret, but I don't feel that at all because I felt like I was ready to move forward and move on. That allowed me to take the risks of running, knowing full well that I couldn't return to the state Senate. I just feel an overarching feeling of gratitude because I am so grateful for my time in the Senate. I feel very strongly about the fact that the growth that I've had as an individual, and as a human being, is something I will cherish forever. It's very particular to this type of work. I don't think I would have grown as I have grown if I didn't do this work or participated in this process.
What are you going to miss most about being in the state Senate and working in Albany?
Something I will miss the most is the people. It's very rare – very, very rare – to find people in politics that you can actually say, these are my friends. I have been fortunate enough and blessed enough to have found more than one of those people. Those relationships and friendships are so important because they are a source of strength for me, and sisterhood and a really tremendous amount of inspiration. When I think of those individuals as well as the community that I've been able to serve, I think that’s the hardest part that I will miss the most. I love to be able to use my platform and my voice to raise awareness on issues and draft bills. Not just talk about the problem, but actually do something about it. It's not to say that you can't do that on the outside, but I think that this particular piece of work is very unique. It's also why I can say very confidently that even though I might not be returning to the state Senate, I certainly do not feel like my time in politics is over.
So do you have plans to run for elected office again?
The answer is probably yes. Although I can’t see when or for what. But I think, particularly right now, the thing I'm most grateful for is that I can take a pause in a moment that I really think will also give me depth to my leadership. That’s why I’m going next year to the Harvard Divinity School because I am very self-aware and we all have blind spots. I'm very aware that when you're doing this work every single day, and at the pace at which you do it, and the amount of work required and demand really makes it difficult to slow down, to pause, to have an intersection and to become a different kind of leader than we've seen. In my quest to go to divinity school, that is one of the things that I really hope to get out of it because I oftentimes have felt like I'm on a very fast treadmill that makes it hard to slow down. I am so craving that depth to become the leader that I know I can be.
You’ve been publicly critical of the state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs, and you’ve vowed to “lead the charge” in replacing him. What will your role be in the effort to remove him, and why was it important for you to voice your criticism of Jacobs?
I am so proud to be a Democrat and we as New York state Democrats deserve so much better than what the Party is doing. When you don't have an infrastructure, vision or strategy, then essentially what you’re doing is you're not just letting the people down who are really relying on the Democratic Party, but you're failing to reach your potential. That ultimately means you are harming the people who are really in need of strong leadership. New York is one of the bluest states in the country, and we know that the House majority runs through New York. The negligence with which the races were cared for, not just at the federal level, but also at the state level, and the lack of support and, frankly, ground game that the state party had is a complete disqualification of being a leader. This is not personal. I want Democrats to be strong in New York because if we don’t get our act together we can guarantee that we will lose in 2024 and every year after that. It's not just about removing and replacing him. It's also about selecting someone who has that vision, the ability to strategize and understands the importance of ground game with a combination of the right funding. In the offseason, it's our job to build that power by talking to voters. There is no shortcut to winning an election.
What advice would you give to new lawmakers heading into their first session next year, just going off of all of the learning that you had within your time in the state Senate?
The biggest advice that I would give is: Once the campaign is over, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. If there is someone that is recently elected that you see in need, help them. It doesn't take away from your power to mentor someone else or to help someone else along the way because those are people that I will always remember and also want to help in the future. Part of what makes a strong elected official, a strong office, a strong district, a strong Legislature, is when you're actually doing that, instead of worrying about whether it's got credit for whatever the thing is that you're trying to do. The second thing is: We're there to use our power. So don't save it for a rainy day, but use it every single day. Don't let anyone discourage you from trying to use that power because that is exactly what Albany will try to do. So resist that. Resist that resistance and use your power.
What do you think your legacy in the state Senate will be?
If I had to step outside of myself and look within, the growth is something that I’m very proud of and not something to be ashamed of. So many leaders could very much benefit from just talking about the ways that they grow and the things that they've learned. It doesn't make you a bad leader to say “I didn't know that” or “I didn't realize that”. In fact, it makes you human. If there's one thing that we need in politics and in government, we need people who are humans, who are real people, showing that sometimes people make mistakes and that's okay. It's about how you respond to it. That's something so important because unfortunately, so much of the time the leaders are so scared to talk about mistakes. I think that's such a disservice to being able to actually lead effectively and for a long period of time. I hope that's part of my legacy. The second part is, I hope people understand that when you speak out against big systems, and powerful interests, even if you win some fights and lose others, at the end of the day, that's the purpose of this job. Again: Use your power. It's not about whether you hold the seat. It's about whether your contribution to the seat and to the conversation is actually moving forward. A lot of times people are so scared and motivated by fear that they don't use their power because they're afraid to lose their seats. The moment that you are not afraid to lose your seat anymore because you're there to do the right thing and represent the people then that's the moment that you have such a tremendous amount of freedom that nobody can take away from you. That is the biggest part of my legacy. When you have fearlessness you become unstoppable.
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