Richard Gottfried, NY’s longest-serving lawmaker, prepares for life after Albany


The longest-serving state lawmaker in New York history will hang it up at the end of the month.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who represented parts of Midtown Manhattan and the West Side in the state Assembly for more than five decades, chose not to seek re-election this year, putting an end to a career that first saw him win office in 1970. For 50 years Gottfried has seen Albany lawmakers rise and fall, the balance of power shift, and legislative agendas that have impacted millions of New Yorkers.

“When I announced my candidacy, the Beatles were still together,” he said in an interview with Gothamist. “By the time I got to Albany, I think they were gone.”

To call Gottfried an Albany and Manhattan institution would be selling him short.

A leading progressive voice in Albany, Gottfried championed issues like the legalization of same-sex marriage and decriminalization of marijuana for years — or in some cases decades — before they actually became law.

He served as the powerful chair of the Assembly Health Committee, becoming a leading voice on health care policy in New York while, for the last 30 years, sponsoring a yet-to-be-approved bill to enact a single-payer health care system in the state. Among his last pieces of business will be deciding whether his colleagues should be given a pay raise.

Gottfried, 75, spoke to Gothamist for an exit interview as he prepares for retirement from the only adult job he’s ever known.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Gothamist: Take me back to that time. I mean, you were a 23-year-old college student. What kind of 23-year-old wants to run for the state Legislature? What was going through your head at the time?

Gottfried: Well, I was actually in law school. I took off the spring semester of my second year in law school to devote full-time to my campaign. And then after I got elected, I went to school in the fall and Albany in the spring. So law school took a little longer.

But when I was 13 in 1960, John F. Kennedy was running for president. I thought he was just the greatest and decided that I wanted to do elective office as a career. And a year later, I arrived in high school and joined the debating team and fell in with a handful of other kids, one of whom is Jerry Nadler, who’s now my congressman. And we all felt about the same way and decided we would band together and seek to take over the world — or at least the West Side of Manhattan.

We started getting involved in local political campaigns and, in the late 1960s, got involved in organizing the McCarthy presidential campaign and some antiwar activities and organizing block associations and whatnot — all with the eye that this would create, ultimately, the basis for running to be Democratic Party district leaders and running for the Legislature.

The fact that at age 21, 22, 23, that this was utterly preposterous never really occurred to us.

Had you been to Albany before at that point?

Well, yes, I had.

In the summer of 1967, we had a state constitutional convention that actually met in the Assembly chamber. And I got a job as a summer student intern at the constitutional convention. So I spent a couple of months in the Capitol, in the Assembly chamber. The convention operated on the Assembly rules, so I got to watch something like the Assembly in operation. So I wasn’t a complete stranger to Albany when I got elected.

I really had very little idea, looking back, what exactly one does as an assemblyman, and had really little idea whether I would be there for a term or two or whether this would be my life’s work. Who knew?

What do you know now about legislating that you wish you knew when you first got in office?

Well, almost everything I know, I didn’t know when I first arrived — you know, getting bills drafted well.

Most legislation is drafted either by legislative staff, or by outside groups that have a problem they want solved, and so they write up a bill and bring it to the Legislature. I enjoy drafting legislation. I always say: Some people do crossword puzzles for fun. I draft bills for fun. It’s fun making words line up and do the things I want them to do.

I really had very little idea, looking back, what exactly one does as an assemblyman, and had really little idea whether I would be there for a term or two or whether this would be my life’s work. Who knew?

Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried

But learning how to make sense out of a bill, learning which bills I need to spend time reading, which bills I can rely on somebody else’s judgment, learning the committee process and how to persuade a committee chair to put your bill on an agenda, and then how to get it to the floor — I often describe the legislative process as a maze that is lined with fly paper. So it’s not only hard to find your way through it, but your bill can get stuck to the wall and not move unless you’re there watching to make sure that you can pull it off the wall and get it back moving through the maze. That’s just stuff you’ve got to learn by being there.

On issues like lessening penalties for marijuana, legalizing same-sex marriage — I mean, you were way out ahead of these issues and have seen the general public opinion swing your way. That has to be satisfying on some level to you, right?

Well, yeah. I thank my parents for raising me with good social democratic values that they learned in the 1930s when they were in high school and college and taught me.

I’ve sponsored a lot of bills that have taken 10, 17 or more years to get enacted. This is not a career for the fainthearted, or for people who are looking for quick results.

This is not a career for the fainthearted, or for people who are looking for quick results.

Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried

The marriage bill — which ultimately when it passed, it was sponsored by Danny O’Donnell, one of our openly gay members in the Assembly — passed, I guess, nine years after I first introduced it, which was a lot quicker than I think a lot of people expected. But, you know, my bill to create a single-payer health plan for New York has been [introduced] for 30 years and is still an uphill fight to get enacted, and I’m hoping that will improve in the near future.

But it’s gratifying to see public attitudes change and the attitude of legislators change on an issue. And if you stick to it, that happens.

What’s your biggest regret? You’ve been in office for 50-plus years. Do you look back at any of that time with regret at all?

I don’t think regret. I think by far my biggest disappointment is that the New York Health Act — my bill to create a universal single-payer health plan for New York, which I first introduced in the fall of ‘91 — has not become law. I think it would probably be one of a small handful of the most important policy changes that we’ve made in the history of New York, which I guess is saying a lot. But it has come to the floor of the Assembly and passed a few times, but it is still stalled — which is a long story, and I’m going to keep advocating for it as a former member.

But I think that is — if I could change the outcome of one thing in the last 52 years, that would be it.

Why is now the right time to hang it up? Had you thought about retiring in the past?

It’s something that’s been on my mind for a couple of years, but not before that.

A couple of years ago, my wife, who was a nursery school teacher, retired after decades teaching 3-year-olds, work that she loved. We felt we should be able to enjoy retirement together. So while I did not retire two years ago, I felt now’s the time.

I’ve been doing this for 52 years. It’s the only regular job I’ve had. I worked for a law firm a little while I was in law school.

I’m 75 years old. It’s time to be able to travel whenever we want to pick up and go. And it’s time to be able to take classes in my two hobbies, which are Chinese calligraphy and watercolor painting, and be able to take those classes any day of the week I want without having to worry about whether I have to be in Albany or whether I have to campaign in a primary.

So this was a good time.


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