News & Politics

Richard Gottfried closes the book on more than half a century in office

The longest serving state legislator in New York talks about his 52 years in the Assembly as he readies for retirement

Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, the longest serving member of the Legislature, is retiring by the end of 2022.

Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, the longest serving member of the Legislature, is retiring by the end of 2022. Sean Pressley

Few people can say they’ve been in the same job for more than half a century – even fewer can say they loved every second of it. But retiring Assembly Member Richard Gottfried is one of them. For the past 52 years – not 50, he’ll point out – Gottfried has served in the lower chamber of the state Legislature. He served with nine governors, seven Assembly speakers (nine if you include the acting speakers who took over temporarily after a speaker got criminally convicted) and is the last serving Democratic Assembly member who remembers what it was like to be in the minority. He’s the longest serving state legislator in New York, but not quite the longest serving in American history.

Gottfried will take with him decades of institutional knowledge and experience. And he leaves open the Assembly Health Committee chair for the first time in 35 years. City & State caught up with Gottfried about his many years in the Legislature as he prepares for a retirement of travel and Chinese calligraphy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about a young Richard Gottfried deciding to run for the Assembly in his early 20s.

When I was 13 in 1960, John Kennedy was running for president. And like millions of others, I was really captivated with him, and decided that I wanted to make my career in elective office. A year later when I was 14, entering Stuyvesant High School and joining the debating team, I ran into Jerry Nadler and a couple of other kids who all had a similar interest and we banded together to get involved in politics together. When I was 22 in 1969, I got elected to be a Democratic district leader in part of what is now my district and was gearing up to run in 1970 for the state Assembly. I won the primary with 60% of the vote. Looking back on it, a 23-year-old in the middle of law school getting elected to the Assembly is a really absurd proposition. But to us, it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do.

At 23 years old, did you envision being in the Assembly for so long?

Probably not. I didn’t really think through what I might, if I might run for something else at some point. When I was elected, we had a Republican governor – Nelson Rockefeller. We had a Republican majority in the Assembly and in the state Senate. So the role of a junior Democrat in the Assembly was very different from the role of freshman Democrat today. I don’t know what my career would have been if we had stayed in the minority. But fortunately in the ’74 election, the Watergate landslide, we elected a Democratic governor and elected a Democratic majority in the state Assembly, which we have kept ever since. And so that was, I think for me, a real turning point in what my career could have been.

Albany is anything but boring. In your 52 years in Albany, what has been the most Albany thing that you witnessed?

Well, that’s interesting. I guess a couple of things that are not, sort of, not what you might call routine corruption. There was one instance, I forget how many years ago it was, where a state senator got in trouble for threatening an aide with a carving knife, which you don’t usually see. One instance that has always stuck out in my mind – in the early ’70s, under Gov. Rockefeller and Attorney General (Louis) Lefkowitz, both Republicans – Rockefeller was angry with the Republican leadership in the Assembly, primarily as I recall because they had given him a very hard time on enacting the Rockefeller drug laws. As harsh as they were, they were significantly watered down from what Rockefeller initially proposed, and that was because the Republicans in the Assembly were adamantly opposed to some of the harshest pieces that Rockefeller was proposing. And as a result, Rockefeller arranged for Attorney General Lefkowitz to indict a couple of the leaders of the Republican majority on really bogus election law violations. As I recall, I think they were ultimately acquitted. But when Eliot Spitzer was governor and people were talking about the friction between Spizter and many people in the Legislature, I was reminding a lot of people about Rockefeller getting the Assembly leaders of his own party indicted. Talk about friction.

That’s something.

Yeah. By the way, if you want to know who my favorite governor was – and I’ve served with nine of them – and certainly Kathy Hochul is easily one of them, but I think still my favorite governor – and everybody is surprised when I say this – my favorite governor was Eliot Spitzer. And I still get choked up when I think of losing him 15 months into his tenure. He was strongly progressive, very focused on getting legislation done. There were any number of issues that – in his first year as governor – issues like changes to the workers’ compensation system and a variety of other things that had been hanging around for years. And he just made everybody sit down and work them out, and wouldn’t sit still for people just saying “I disagree on this point” and walking away. So I always felt that he was a terrific governor. I just wish we had him for a full one or two terms, or more.

It’s interesting to look back and remember he was governor for a year, but his tenure was overshadowed by how it ended. Which kind of brings me to the idea of legacy. I’m curious what you think about your own legacy.

Before I leave the topic of Spitzer – early in his tenure, I was just looking around at my colleagues and seeing the rising level of ill will among fellow Democratic legislators towards Spitzer because there were any number of things we disagreed on. And he could have sharp elbows. And it occurred to me that we had had a Republican governor at that point, I guess for 12 years. And I realized most of my colleagues had never served with a Democratic governor. I think they expected a Democratic governor would be our pal, and they were rudely surprised to find that he felt perfectly free to disagree with us, sometimes adamantly. And that did not come as a surprise to me, I had served with two Democratic governors for 20 years. I think it’s important for legislators to remember that the governor is not meant to be our buddy, or vice versa.

Certainly, coming in without the experience, it can be jarring I imagine for lawmakers.

Yeah. And so on the question of legacy, I have always tried with freshman members to, as best I can, try to help them learn how to get bills passed in the Assembly, and how to work in a strong leadership system. If you know how to make the system work, you can accomplish a great deal. With several of my colleagues, I’ve tried hard to help them learn the system because I love it when substance-oriented legislators get elected, and I want to help them have rewarding years in the Legislature so they will stay with it. I can think of a couple of examples like that: Amy Paulin from Westchester and Linda Rosenthal from the West Side of Manhattan, every year are among the handful of legislators who pass more bills in the Assembly than anybody else. I’d like to think that’s in part because early in their tenure in the Assembly, I helped them learn the ropes. I think in terms of substance, I hope I have helped a lot of my colleagues have a better and more progressive understanding of some of the issues in health policy. I’ve certainly tried to do that. And I hope several of my colleagues can carry that forward.

What are your thoughts about leaving office with the unfinished business of the New York Health Act, which you’ve been pushing for for 30 years?

Certainly, the fact that the New York Health Act has not passed is by far my No. 1 disappointment as I leave. But it has the support of the majority of the members in both houses, which is a long way from where it started. Getting this enacted was not destined to be a quick effort. It would probably be one of the handful of the most transformational policy changes in New York’s history, arguably on par with the decision we made in the 1780s – and I hasten to add that was before I was elected – to create universal elementary and secondary education. At that point, that was a revolutionary thing for New York to do. While it’s disappointing, it’s certainly not a surprise that it’s something that’s taking a long time to achieve. And I’m hoping that the new Health Committee chair will want to carry the bill and fight for it. If not, we will look for one of my stronger progressive colleagues to carry it.

What got you into health policy in general? You’re leaving not just a big hole in the Legislature as a whole, but as the longtime chair of the powerful Health Committee.

It was kind of happenstance. I was not thinking at any point of chairing the Health Committee. In late April of ’87, Dan Walsh, who had been the Assembly majority leader, left to become head of the Business Council (of New York State). Jim Tallon, who had been the chair of the Health Committee, was appointed majority leader. And so for several days, there was, you know, this lobbying of different people who wanted to be Health chair. I was the deputy majority leader at the time and wasn’t really at all thinking of that chairmanship. The woman who at the time was the head of my Albany staff called me on Thursday morning of that week. The appointment of Tallon had been announced on Monday of that week. The morning of Thursday, my Albany staff member called me and said, “I know you’re not thinking of a chairmanship, because you’re the deputy majority leader, but committee chairs are really the influential people in the Assembly, and the Health Committee would be terrific. You would do a great job at it. You should put your name in.” And it was like a lightbulb going off in my head. I said, “Let's hang up. You know, you’re right. Let’s hang up. Let me call Mel Miller’s office and let them know I’m interested before he appoints somebody else.” And so at about 10 o’clock that morning, I called the speaker’s office. I left word with the secretaries of a couple of key staff people to let them know I was interested. And about 2 o’clock that afternoon, Ben Shapiro, who was the speaker’s counsel, called me up and said, “I talked to Mel. He thinks it’s a great idea. Here’s where you can reach him on the phone tomorrow morning, call and he’ll tell you everything.” So four hours after the idea occurred to me, I get a call from the speaker’s office saying tag you’re it. That Friday morning, I had a quick phone call with Mel Miller, who said, “You’re the new chairman.” And he said, “Jim Tallon is going to be in my Manhattan office this morning. Go talk to him, he’ll tell you everything,” and hung up. And it was, in terms of my career at least, a life-changing moment. And until Thursday morning, utterly unexpected. So, that’s how I became a (committee) chairman.

You never know what’s going to change the trajectory of your life, or what random day that’s going to happen on.

Yeah. And in terms of my political career, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened.

This interview will come out after Election Day, but there’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty going into election night, and regardless of the outcome, promises to have lasting impacts. As you’re leaving office during this turbulent political time, what advice do you leave to your colleagues in the Legislature and folks who may consider running for office?

I often think of the last words of the radical labor leader Joe Hill, who was a leader of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, who was convicted and executed by the state of Utah in the early 1900s. His famous final words to his followers were, “Do not mourn. Organize.” So people may need to be thinking about that. And the other is a line I recently came across, it’s from an ancient Chinese song that says, “When the water of the river is clear, I wash the ribbons of my hat. When the water of the river is muddy, I wash my feet.” Which is to say, depending on what life deals you, you accomplish what you can. While we may be entering an unprecedented dark period in our politics, people have to keep working at what they can accomplish. Ever since Donald Trump started running for president in 2015, I have been urging people to read or reread – Sinclair Lewis in 1935 wrote a little novel called “It Can’t Happen Here,” which is about a very Trump-like president who gets elected in 1936 and transforms America into a fascist dictatorship. It was a very scary book when I read it in high school decades ago. It was even scarier when I reread it in 2015. People ought to give it a quick read.

To end things on a little bit of a lighter note, what does your future hold? What does retirement look like for Richard Gottfried?

There are three things I plan on spending a lot of time doing. One is my wife and I are hoping to do a lot of traveling because until now, our work schedules have not provided a lot of opportunity for that. Taiwan is one of the places we want to go back to because my daughter-in-law is from Taiwan and she has family there. Of course, that depends on whether China is invading them or not. So Taiwan is certainly one of the places we are hoping to go. And I am looking to spend a lot more time working on my two hobbies, which are writing Chinese calligraphy and watercolor painting. I’ve been doing the calligraphy (and) I’ve been taking a class in Chinese calligraphy for 25 years now. I’m totally addicted to it.

That sounds like something to look forward to, although I would imagine that this won’t mark the end of your forays into politics. In between hobbies and traveling, should New Yorkers still expect to see you pop up from time to time, offering advice and insight?

I don’t know how much New Yorkers will see of me, but I am assuming that a fair number of my colleagues will be calling me for advice or to explain a bill of mine that someone has reintroduced. So my cellphone number and my Gmail address remain the same.