State Sen. Diane Savino saw some horrible cases as a child welfare worker for New York City. She also saw some horrible politics in the state Senate. “Dysfunction … the coup … corruption … infighting … incompetence,” she told City & State at the Somos Puerto Rico conference. But if helping create the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democrats who aligned with Republicans, in 2011 was a bid to avoid the chaos – it’s fair to say it failed on that front. Savino was the last former IDC member left standing, after most of her colleagues lost reelection in 2018, and another moved on in 2020. Now, she’s leaving the state Senate too, declining to seek reelection after 18 years representing parts of Staten Island’s North Shore and southern Brooklyn. And she sounded like it too – Savino isn’t afraid to talk shit about the system, or those that wronged her. The state senator is staying in the game though – she’s joining New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, likely working in intergovernmental affairs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How’d you get into the state Senate?
In 2004, after helping build the Working Families Party in our efforts to help flip the (state) Senate to the Democrats, David Paterson, who was the new minority leader, calls me and invites me to lunch. I’m the political director of a 18,000 member union (Social Service Employees Union Local 371), it’s not odd. And I assume that he wants to talk to me about who we’re going to support, what resources we can contribute, blah, blah, blah. And instead, he pitches to me the idea of running for Senate.
So David Paterson, he’s my friend forever, promised me, “Don't worry, this will be easy. It’s a Democratic seat, no one will run against you.” And within a few days of me announcing I had a four-way primary. (Laughs.) And when I talked to him about it, he says, “We can’t get involved in a primary.” So I had a four-way primary against three men. The long and short of it was I won the primary with 50-something percent of the vote, and then wound up in one of the most expensive races in the state that year against Al Curtis. Also one of the ugliest, nastiest races in the state.
So that Friday, or the Thursday before (Election Day) in Borough Park and in Italian households, Republicans and conservatives got a letter allegedly written by me, on letterhead that said it came from me. I still have a copy of a letter too. Saying that, that on the eve of this election, I must let you know before you vote for me that I am a lesbian American.
So now of course this creates a firestorm in Borough Park. (Former Assembly Member) Dov Hikind spent the day on Election Day – as people had the letter in their hands– and he’s like, this is ridiculous, who would write this letter? Because they thought that that would be enough to get people to turn away and not vote for me. Obviously didn’t work.
I have a philosophy in life. I don’t freeze people in time. Unless you tried to get me indicted. We can always get over it.
That’s how you got into elected office. Why are you getting out of the state Senate?
I’m tired of it. You get tired of it after a while. I went there to do certain things. One was to help build the Democratic majority and elect people. Two was to work on issues that I thought were important. Working people’s issues, you know, passing laws that strengthen unions, or strengthen the rights of working people. That was my main focus. When you get there, you find out that there’s a million other issues that you have to be responsible for, and you don’t really know anything about. And I think that’s the biggest challenge for legislators, is they walk in the door knowing either a little bit about a lot of stuff, or a lot about a little.
So I knew a lot about unions and working people, and labor and social services, because that’s where I came from. But then you’re confronted with environmental issues, telecommunications policy and all sorts of things that you’re like, wow, I don’t really know anything about this. And it’s important that, one, you have good staff around you. And I will say, the Senate staff, both the Republican staff, the Democratic, over the years, they have really been amazing, the legislative analysts that we’ve had have been great. Lobbyists too. Lobbyists get a terrible rap. But the truth is, they provide an invaluable service to legislators when they’re good. Some lobbyists are lousy at it. I always tell them, the best lobbyists are able to take a complicated issue and explain it to elected officials in five sentences or less, because that’s the extent of our attention span.
But I got very involved, of course with the (Democratic Senate Campaign Committee). You know, we took the Senate to the majority. And I always said we won it fair and square in 2008. And in 2010, we lost it fair and square. Through dysfunction. Through the coup. Through corruption. Through infighting. Through incompetence. An inability to govern. So many missed opportunities. But in spite of it, we did do a lot of amazing things in those two years.
Was the IDC a good idea?
Would you do anything differently, looking back?
No. Maybe. Maybe, we could have reunited (with the Democratic conference) sooner. And I think the only thing that got in the way, honestly – because none of us disagreed in principle, on issues – was the animosity that had developed among some of us. And I think you saw it play itself out in the campaigns. It just became about personal anger with each other. And that is my only regret.
I don’t have the number in front of me – when could you have united? By 2014, or would it have to be 2016?
(When) 2016 happened, but there was this narrative created that if we just joined the Democrats, they would have 32 votes. No they wouldn’t. The math didn’t work. I remember when we were trying to negotiate over the DREAM Act where we did eventually get the bill on the floor, and it failed. We had a meeting with Al Sharpton. We went over the numbers one after the other, who was for it, who was against it. And I remember Sharpton turned around and he goes, “You don't need a dream, you need a calculator.” Because we didn’t have 32 votes.
But it didn’t matter, because for people who are angry, it’s a good talking point. Choice. The DREAM Act. We couldn’t pass choice when we were in the majority. We never had the votes. We put it on the floor. It didn’t pass. And you saw it when it finally did pass, the (Reproductive Health Act). There were Democrats who voted “no.”
Was there any hesitation to hold the vote legalizing same-sex marriage in your more conservative district?
When I ran for office, I was very clear with people. This is where I stand on these types of issues, whether it’s choice or marriage equality. And I believe as a candidate, you have a responsibility to tell people who you are and what you believe in. And if they don’t like it, if they’re a single-issue person, I will tell you then, that I’m not your girl. You owe people the truth about bright line issues. So if that’s the only thing they care about, they should know. So for me, people might not like it, but they knew what I believed in.
But the point was, we never had the votes, but we put the bill on the floor. And as predicted, we had 24 “yes” votes. Granted, it may have been one of my finer moments. My marriage equality speech, which has been translated into 72 languages and seen around the world, (was) totally extemporaneous off the top of my head.
What’s your proudest moment as a senator, or a bill you passed?
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is definitely one of them. Correcting an 85-year injustice on domestic workers. No other state had done it yet. Wage theft – we have the strongest wage laws in the country. Certainly medical marijuana, which then was like fighting tooth and nail to get it implemented and done right. And it’s still a work in progress. Because in spite of the governor (Andrew Cuomo) proclaiming that he supported it, he fought me every step of the way. And we still have a pretty shitty implementation, and I’m watching them totally fuck up the adult use.
Those are the bills that I’m most proud of – there’s tons of them that were important to people that nobody cares about. I think that’s the most gratifying thing: when it’s a bill that doesn’t affect millions of people. But to some one individual, or a small group, it’s really profound. That’s nice. Writing legislation is hard. And I don’t think people really understand that.
How much are you involved? Like are you actually choosing the words?
I write my own bills. Well, I shouldn’t say that. It’s my ideas. I don’t take bills from advocates. I may take the idea and we’ll work with it, but at the end of the day, it’s our work. I think that’s important, because you don’t vote on ideas, you vote on legislation. So you better read the bill.
I think of the members that serve now, I think one of the most talented people is Zellnor Myrie. He’s really smart. And he’s a really good legislator. He doesn’t take advice as criticism.
When you became one of the few remaining IDC members, were you ever iced out of the Democratic conference?
Not really. Over the years, in spite of being in the IDC, I have, I just have a way of doing things. Like I never iced them out. I didn’t treat people like they were my enemies. So I think there was certainly some respect. They may not have liked the IDC, but they didn’t take it personally with me. I can’t say the same for others
What’s next? Are you joining the Eric Adams administration?
Yeah! It’s like the worst kept secret in the world.
Do you have an official role yet?
To be determined. Suffice to say, I’m not done with government yet. Thirty-two years is not enough. I’m a bit of a masochist. I started out as a caseworker. I guess I’ll be a caseworker for the city now.
Anything else you wanted to get on the record as a senator? You know, your time is limited.
Anything I wanted to get done? There’s a million things you want to get done. Like I would have liked to have been able to get the medical aid in dying done. But that’s a complicated bill. I would say that was the most complicated issue that I ever got involved in. And with each election cycle, it was like starting over again. Like sometimes a piece of legislation just builds with each cycle. This one was like scrap it, start all over again.