Did Gounardes get the best Senate committee assignment?
Chairing the Committee on Civil Service and Pensions is a sweet development for the incoming legislator.
Brooklyn Democrat Andrew Gounardes has not served a day yet as a state senator, but things are already going his way in Albany.
The Dec. 11 announcement that he will chair the state Senate Committee on Civil Service and Pensions has set him up for big things. Not only will that position give him oversight of many issues important to his constituents, it will also empower him to develop relationships with public sector unions – a powerful constituency that could determine his political longevity as well as that of the Democratic Senate majority.
That might seem like a lot of responsibility to give a freshman lawmaker, but a few factors made Gounardes an obvious choice. He represents southern Brooklyn, which has a sizeable number of public sector workers; he already has existing connections to organized labor; and – perhaps most importantly – has an eagerness to master nitty-gritty policy details that affect hundreds of thousands of public employees statewide.
It might not be the most glamorous position to hold, but the committee appointment shows that Democratic leaders are eager to see if Gounardes has the right stuff to become a top-notch lawmaker. “It’s an important committee for the conference as a whole to have good relations with organized labor,” said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant. “It’s also a reflection of their confidence in Gounardes.”
Union issues are not new for Gounardes, whose experience includes years serving as a trustee of the New York City Employees’ Retirement System. His state Senate campaign also leaned heavily on the support of organized labor, including endorsements from New York State United Teachers, the Teamsters Local 814 union and 32BJ SEIU.
“It’s all about protecting the financial security of our workforce,” he told City & State. But he concedes that he still has much to learn about the statewide and local issues that will come before the committee in the coming months. In recent days, he has been setting up meetings, hiring staff and “talking to folks” in preparation for the position. “I’m sure I’ll be a quick study,” he added.
“It’s all about protecting the financial security of our workforce. I’m sure I’ll be a quick study.” – state Sen.-elect Andrew Gounardes
That will require getting up to speed on a wide range of matters, both big and small. These include high-profile issues like ensuring that 9/11 first responders get the health care they need and finding ways for government departments to offer salaries and benefits that are competitive with the private sector. Then there are more parochial issues, whether it is helping Nassau County emergency medical technicians get better disability benefits or figuring out how to loosen up employment restrictions for retired New York City correction officers.
While these are not the biggest issues facing the state, they can have an outsized impact. Successfully tending to these issues can win Gounardes friends in organized labor, help fellow Democrats in their districts and even garner some goodwill from Republicans. While organized labor has long been a strong supporter of the Democratic Party at the national level, that has not necessarily been the case in New York state politics. “I think labor has been an important ally on a bipartisan basis of both houses of the Legislature,” Gyory said. This tendency to work with the party in power means that there is also a political opportunity for incumbents who can remain in the good graces of public sector unions.
That will be especially true for Gounardes in his southern Brooklyn district. “It’s always been a family community,” said Assemblyman Peter Abbate Jr., whose district overlaps with Gounardes’ Senate district. “Firefighters, sanitation workers, police officers, you know, civil service workers.” In the Assembly, Abbate leads a similar legislative committee overseeing the civil service, chairing the Committee on Government Employees since 2002. Together, Gounardes and Abbate will continue the dominance of southern Brooklyn on such issues.
State Sen. Marty Golden – the Republican incumbent whom Gounardes unseated by a slim margin – is a good example of how attention to civil service issues can pay off in the long term. Golden was a prolific legislator on the committee in his four terms as chairman. In the past year, for example, he sponsored bills on a wide range of matters from efforts to improve disability retirement options for deputy sheriffs to a bill that would shake up how child welfare staff can be hired. He may have been a controversial figure in state politics, but he had a Senate record filled with pro-union legislation that helped him get elected time and time again, often with the help of unions like the AFL-CIO, who are not known as the biggest GOP boosters.
Now, it is Gounardes’ turn to enjoy the political opportunities that come with chairing the committee – if he can rise to the challenge. “You got to make sure you balance well and understand the ramifications of each one of the bills and the costs and how you are going to make it work,” Golden said.
If Gounardes can keep the unions happy, he can help his constituents, help his party keep its hold on the state Senate – and he can help establish his political longevity by taking advantage of an opportunity that fell into his lap before he even took office. “It’s a great committee for somebody with a district like that to connect with voters by saying, ‘I’m protecting your pension and your rights,” Gyory said. “Absolutely a vote generator.”
NEXT STORY: The troubled history of the Tappan Zee’s replacement