Albany Agenda

A wave of retirements hits the New York Legislature

A dozen lawmakers have already announced they’re heading for the exits. Some say they’ve had enough of the Albany grind.

Assembly Member Fred Thiele is retiring after serving in the Assembly since 1995.

Assembly Member Fred Thiele is retiring after serving in the Assembly since 1995. Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

On Wednesday as the Legislature prepared to send Gov. Kathy Hochul revised congressional maps to consider, Democratic Assembly Member Ken Zebrowski and Assembly Minority Leader Pro Tempore Andy Goodell got into a back-and-forth over the process by which Democrats created the new lines. Somewhere in the middle, Zebrowski took issue with how Goodell referred to his party – Democrat, not Democratic – and the two joked over their party mascots, a Republican elephant for Goodell and a Democratic donkey for Zebrowski. The donkey’s three-letter nickname, not fit for print here, sent the two into a tizzy. “Aren’t you going to miss this?” Zebrowski asked Goodell. 

Both members will be leaving the chamber once their terms end. They aren’t alone. Assembly Members Jeff Aubry, Daniel O'Donnell, Inez Dickens, Marjorie Byrnes, Fred Thiele, Latoya Joyner (who has already resigned), Joseph Giglio, Aileen Gunther and Helene Weinstein are leaving the Legislature. State Sens. Neil Breslin, Tim Kennedy, Kevin Thomas and John Mannion are also departing. 

Weinstein, a Democrat, was the latest, announcing Monday she planned to retire at the end of her term. As Assembly Ways and Means Committee chair, she helped spearhead the budget process in the Legislature. Now, after representing the 41st Assembly District for nearly 44 years, she eyes a future outside of elected office. 

After thanking her staff and constituents in a statement she said, “It has been the greatest honor to serve as an Assemblymember.”

Political consultant Joe Bonilla described the number of retirements this year as “more than usual but not like there's a tidal wave.” There is turnover in the Legislature every year, but for some, this session feels different, with the announcements coming earlier and in greater quantities. Bonilla said that 2024 being an election is a factor as lawmakers hope to get a head start on campaigns for higher office. 

“I also think some of them frankly, just weren't having fun anymore,” said political consultant Jack O’Donnell. “That it's changed. Activists on both sides are louder and more willing to target members. I think getting things done has gotten harder.”

As far as retirements are concerned, a common thread for some was the commute, a day’s journey that begins Sunday morning depending on where a lawmaker is based. 

Jamestown-based Goodell said he realized, “several state capitals were closer to me than Albany, including Washington D.C., and Annapolis, Cincinnati, Lansing, Michigan. So it's a long, long drive.”

As a party leader in the Assembly, he said his workload consumed most of his week, important messages waking him in the middle of the night and the constant need to review bills. 

“We're reviewing literally 100 to 200 bills a day, and we'll finish late at night,” he said. 

Goodell said that after over a decade in office, he plans to return to his legal practice and spend time with his family, adding that the hope is to “retire while you’re healthy.” The retirement he said has less to do with his impact as a legislator and more with how he wants to end his career. 

Chuckling as he noted his strong performance in the last election he said, “I would rather leave of my own doing rather than being asked to leave, or invited to leave, by the voters.” 

Democratic Assembly Member Fred Thiele said even though he is leaving the Assembly when his term ends, he still has a “zest” for the job after 29 years. But the Long Island lawmaker said at a certain point you have to evaluate what you want from life. 

“For me, I just think that I reached that time where there were still other things I wanted to do while I can do them, and spending that much time in a car and in a hotel room, that got less appealing,” Thiele said. “I love the job as much as I did the first day I walked through the door. I really, really enjoy the work, I enjoy the people, the camaraderie you know, getting things done for people.”

Republican Assembly Member Joseph Giglio concurred with Thiele and Goodell that the commute and workload take a toll. However, Giglio said everyone in the statehouse knows what they signed up for.

“I used to kid around with our guys during budget (season) when we'd be stuck overnight I said ‘Remember gentlemen and ladies, we asked for this job’,” he said. “We knew what we were getting into and that’s the nature of our beast. But after a while, it just wears you down.”

Bonilla said that another factor for lawmakers as they decide whether or not to remain in the Legislature is the impending cap on outside income. Set to go into effect in 2025, a $35,000 limit was attached to a pay raise state lawmakers approved for themselves last year.

“If you’re an attorney and you’re also working for a firm, certainly at that point you might be making x amount of money outside of your legislative pay,” Bonilla said. “Having that cap is going to throw you a challenge for sure” 

For legislators who plan to leave in a bid for a higher office, there is already a sense of ennui over leaving their colleagues. State Sen. Kevin Thomas announced he would not seek reelection to run for Congress, although he has since suspended his campaign. He said he’ll miss the work he did in Albany. 

“I’m going to miss my conference, they’re a good team together,” he said. “We are out there trying to save lives and I found my calling.”

The political landscape gumming up the process plays into these decisions to leave, O’Donnell added as “part of the fun is being able to accomplish things.” 

“It's supposed to be fun for the people who are giving up time with their family and putting in the extra hours,” he said. “Most of these legislators are working really hard. … That's not always the perception, but I see them in Albany, I see them in their districts, and they do work really hard.” 

Bonilla said that while annual turnover is expected, years with many notable departures are also becoming normal. He added that eventually, the regular culling of lawmakers as they run for other offices and retire will have a tangible effect on New York politics. 

“This is happening more often than not,” Bonilla said. “Governor Cuomo used to say you have these 100-year storms happening every year and I think we starting to get to a point where we have these generational shifts happening more than within a generation’s time, like every couple few years here, especially as political tectonic plates are shifting at a more rapid degree.”