In Public Service: Peter Abbate learns from local knowledge
Sit down to lunch in Tommaso’s with Assemblymember Peter Abbate and the talk is bound to turn to the neighborhood it’s in, Dyker Heights, and the mom and pop shops and family-owned restaurants that make the community a great place.
Sitting in the back of the dining room, completely in his element, Abbate describes the entire block where Tommaso’s is located, 86th Street between Bay Eighth Street and 15th Avenue, knowing exactly what other stores are on that stretch. “There’s the Mexican place next door. Mona Lisa Bakery closed,” he tells the Brooklyn Eagle.
Abbate (D-Dyker Heights-Bensonhurst, Sunset Park) prides himself on knowing the neighborhoods he represents on such an intimate scale that he can recite the names of stores on particular blocks.
For Abbate, it’s not just a matter of knowing where stores are located. It’s a matter of knowing the communities he serves. He takes pride in the fact that he is on a first-name basis with many merchants and that the shopkeepers, who keep an eye out for the neighborhood, never hesitate to tell him what’s going on.
Abbate has been at this for a long time.
He was first elected to the New York state Assembly in 1986 and has been re-elected every two years since, usually by runaway margins.
Abbate, whose district office is located at 6605 Fort Hamilton Parkway, said he likes to think of his job as containing three parts: 1) drafting and voting on legislation in Albany; 2) making sure that the state budget contains funding for important parts of his district like schools and senior citizens centers; and 3) performing constituent services.
The latter is important to Abbate. “Thousands of people have come through my office over the years,” he tells the Eagle. Constituents come in seeking assistance with everything from filling out Medicare forms to repairs for broken street lights. “People come in and tell me, ‘My stop sign is out.’ If we can get the stop sign fixed, we get it fixed. We don’t pass the buck. We work to get it done,” he says.
Abbate serves as chairman of the Assembly Government Employees Committee and said he works to ensure that cops, firefighters and other civil servants get the pensions they deserve.
“I’m fighting to make sure the things they fought for are preserved,” he says.
With the redistricting that was done by the State Legislature following the 2010 U.S. Census, Abbate’s district, the 49th Assembly District, lost parts of western Bensonhurst and picked up sections of Sunset Park. The Sunset Park portion of Abbate’s district includes Brooklyn Chinatown, a vibrant residential and commercial zone where thousands of Asian-Americans live and work.
He has gone out of his way to introduce himself to his new constituents.
Abbate is perhaps best known for two events he sponsors for senior citizens during the year, a picnic and a prom. The picnic, held each year on a hillside at the U.S. Army Garrison at Fort Hamilton overlooking the Narrows, is also sponsored by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Council members Vincent Gentile, Carlos Menchaca and Mark Treyger.
“It’s a day out for the seniors,” Abbate says. Tickets are distributed through local senior citizen centers.
The prom, which takes place each spring, is co-sponsored by Abbate and Gentile and is held at the Rex Manor Catering Hall. “It’s a great thing,” Abbate tells the Eagle. “The seniors get to feel like teenagers again. We get 20 young kids from high school to chaperone them. It’s like they reverse roles.”
The role of legislator is one that Abbate never envisioned for himself when he was young. He had intended to become a lawyer.
He was born and raised in Dyker Heights. His father was a U.S. Postal Service carrier. He attended P.S. 176 for a year and then transferred to Regina Pacis Catholic School. He is a graduate of Bishop Ford High School and Saint John’s University, where he earned a degree in political science.
In 1973, Abbate postponed law school and went to work for Stephen Solarz. Solarz, who would later become a Congressman, was an Assemblymember at the time. “Steve hired me as a driver for $75 a week,” Abbate recalled.
Abbate was on the campaign staff when Solarz ran for Brooklyn borough president. Solarz lost to Sebastian Leone.
“I said to myself, ‘I have to get a real job now.’ I decided to drive cross-country,” Abbate says.
When he was somewhere out west (he doesn’t remember if it was Wyoming or Colorado), he got a call from his parents who told him that Solarz had called looking for him. Solarz had decided to run for Congress in what was then the 15th Congressional District (Coney Island-Brighton Beach) and wanted Abbate to be on his campaign staff. Abbate served as the assistant campaign manager.
“I hired a bunch of kids to hand out campaign literature. We had over 100 kids out there. We used to call them ‘Peter’s Army.’ They lived in the area. They became part of the family,” he says.
Solarz won his congressional race in 1974 and Abbate went to work for him. “I got roped into working in politics and I never went to law school,” he says.
He worked for Solarz for 10 years. After he left, he got a job working for the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee, which is still headquartered at 16 Court St.
“Howie Golden was the county leader,” he says, referring to former Borough President Howard Golden. Abbate worked to straighten out the budget and sought to instill cost cutting measures.
In 1986, party leaders approached him about running for the Assembly in the 49th A.D. He decided to run and defeated incumbent Republican Arnaldo Ferraro.
Soon after he was elected, Abbate went through a baptism of fire. The federal government tried to close the Dyker Heights Post Office, located at 8320 13th Ave. in Dyker Heights, which was the heart of his district at the time.
“The government wanted to move the whole operation from the Dyker Heights Post Office to the Fort Hamilton Post Office in Bay Ridge. It was ridiculous,” he says. It would have created a hardship for senior citizens, who would have had to travel by bus to get to the post office in Bay Ridge, he says.
Abbate organized protest rallies, launched petition drives and spoke out against the closure plan at a town hall at Dyker Heights Junior High School. He won and the post office remains open to this day.
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