Colton likes to encourage young people to take charge
In Public Service
William Colton has been serving in the New York state Assembly for nearly 19 years and said he loves his job because he enjoys working to make the lives of his constituents better. But Colton also said he doesn’t think he can do it alone.
Colton, a Democrat who first won election to the 47th Assembly District (Gravesend-Bensonhurst) in 1996, has become widely known for his efforts to encourage teenagers and young adults to take a more active role in civic improvement projects in their neighborhoods.
Under a campaign he started a few years ago called “Speak-Up & Clean-Up,” Colton organizes groups of volunteers, mostly high school students, to sweep litter from sidewalks three or four times a year.
Colton founded “Speak-Up & Clean-Up” with Priscilla Consolo, a Fordham University student who is one of many young people he has encouraged over the years.
It isn’t only young people that Colton likes to give advice to. “I think it’s important for all ages to get involved,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle during an interview in his district office at 155 Kings Highway last month.
As an example, he pointed to a “Speak-Up & Clean-Up” litter sweep he organized high school students on West Eighth Street a few years ago. “People were complaining about how dirty it was so the kids cleaned it up. There was a senior citizen who was watching from his front porch. When the kids said, ‘Join us,’ he did! He started sweeping the sidewalk in front of his house,” Colton said.
Dirty sidewalks are about more than just litter. “It affects the whole quality of life. When an area is dirty, people don’t want to come. Clean sidewalks benefit the business owners and benefit the residents,” Colton told the Eagle.
Another young person that Colton advised is Councilmember Mark Treyger. Both men enjoy telling the story of when Treyger came to Colton when he was 18 years old and asked for advice on whether it would be a good idea to become involved in politics.
“Bill told me, ‘If you want to get involved because you enjoy helping people and doing good things for the community, then it’s a good idea for you to do it. But if you want to go into politics to make money, you’re picking the wrong profession.’ I never forgot that advice,” Treyger said.
“There’s no money in politics and the kind of people who go into it looking to make money are the kind of people who wind up going to jail for corruption,” Colton said.
Colton enthusiastically endorsed Treyger when the latter ran for City Council in 2013. Treyger won that election.
Colton also encouraged Nancy Tong, a constituent aide in his office, to run for the position of Democratic District Leader of the 47th AD in 2014. Tong, who moved to Bensonhurst 12 years ago, volunteered in local schools for many years. Impressed by her energy and enthusiasm, Colton hired her to work as a constituent liaison in his district office.
“She has helped so many people and now she is the first Chinese-American district leader in Brooklyn,” Colton said.
Colton, who loves to inspire young people, said he was inspired as a young man by John F. Kennedy. He was particularly moved by Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961. “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” the young president told the nation that day.
Colton grew up on East Third Street in Gravesend. He lamented the fact that his old block was taken out of his assembly district in the redistricting process that took place following the 2010 U.S. Census.
He attended Saint Athanasius Catholic School, Cathedral Prep and earned a bachelor’s degree in urban education from Saint John’s University in 1968. He holds a master’s degree in urban education from Brooklyn College. He taught in the New York City public school system for 11 years. “I taught third, fourth and fifth grades in elementary school. I loved teaching,” he said. He worked in School District 15 in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“The key to teaching is to find the key that opens a child’s mind. If you can get them interested in a subject, it opens their minds and learning takes place,” Colton said.
His classroom experiences have stayed with him through the years. “I think about it when we’re working on the education budget in the Assembly,” he said.
It was when he was a teacher that Colton first became aware of the impact politics has on education. “I could see first hand how funding cuts impacted the education of children,” he said.
Colton decided to go to law school. He graduated from St. John’s School of Law in 1978.
He represented a group of Bensonhurst residents who sued to get the city to close the Southwest Brooklyn Garbage Incinerator on environmental grounds. Colton charged that the trash burner polluted the air and was responsible for a number of respiratory ailments suffered by residents who lived near the facility. “The community was basically being assaulted by contaminants,” Colton said.
The incinerator was shut down in the early 1990s. Today, the city is planning to build a new trash compacting station at the same site. Colton is leading the fight against it. “I’ve told Mayor de Blasio to his face that he’s wrong on the garbage station. The city doesn’t need more trash facilities. The city needs to do more recycling,” he said. Colton filed a lawsuit to stop the construction and lost, but he is appealing the judge’s ruling.
Colton decided to run for the state Assembly in 1996 after Frank Barbaro, the longtime assemblymember, retired from politics and became a judge. Colton won that election and has been re-elected every two years since.
Colton also started a tradition that first year. “I had visited subway stations all during that campaign. The day after the election, I started another round of subway stop visits. And I kept it up. I like to talk to people at subway stations even when it’s not election season,” he said.
When a bill comes up for a vote in the Assembly, Colton said he makes a decision on how to vote after talking to constituents. “I like to find out how the residents of my district feel about it. As an elected representative, you’ve got to lead people. But you also have to bring people together,” he said.
Colton serves on several Assembly committees including: Ways and Means, Rules, Labor, Governmental Employees, Environmental Conservation, and Corrections.
Colton said he loves talking to constituents about issues and then getting to work on solving those issues.
One issue he worked to resolve involved the B64 bus a few years ago. The B64 bus route extends from Bay Ridge to Coney Island. But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) shortened the bus route so that the bus line terminated in Bensonhurst and no longer ran all the way to Stilwell Avenue in Coney Island.
“It went only to 25th Avenue. It affected many senior citizens. They used to take the bus to go shopping or to go to doctor’s appointments. There was a senior citizen center that lost one third of its people because the seniors used to take the bus there and the bus wasn’t going there anymore. It also affected many businesses,” Colton said.
Colton organized petition drives and started a letter-writing campaign. “We got organizations to write letters to the MTA. We went to an MTA board meeting. We demanded that the MTA put funding toward restoring the full bus line,” he recalled.
The MTA eventually restored the B64 to its full route.
The 47th Assembly District is a diverse district, according to Colton, who said that large numbers of immigrants from Asia and South America have settled there over the last 10 years. “But Bensonhurst has always been an immigrant neighborhood. Years ago, it was the Italians who came and made it their home. Now, it’s people from other parts of the world. The neighborhood has always been a place for immigrants,” he said.
Approximately 35 percent of the population today is Asian. Fifteen percent of the people living in the district are from South American countries. Another 15 percent are Russian.
“It’s diverse. But usually you find that everyone wants to same thing; a good quality of life,” Colton said.
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