In Public Service: Brennan’s tenure stretches back to mid-1980s
James Brennan was first elected to the New York state Assembly in 1984 and has seen a lot of changes in Albany in those 31 years. Brennan, a Democrat who represents the 44th Assembly District (AD), has seen four Assembly Speakers come and go and is currently working with his fifth, Carl Heastie.
But Brennan seems to prefer looking ahead, not looking back. He always looks like he’s ready to grapple with the next challenge.
During the 2015 legislative term, Brennan worked with officials from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to come up with a framework to get the agency’s capital budget passed by the state Legislature so that much-needed infrastructure repairs could take place.
“My office and the MTA came up with a framework to fund the capital plan,” Brennan told the Brooklyn Eagle in an interview in his district office at 416 Seventh Ave. He also maintains a second district office at 1414 Cortelyou Road.
The MTA’s capital program did not get funded in the state budget, Brennan said. Gov. Cuomo vetoed, through his Transportation Commission, an MTA proposed capital plan submitted to the MTA Capital Program Review Board.
“The program is a year overdue,” Brennan said. Money is needed to purchase a new fleet of buses and subway cars, he said. Funding is also needed for new, technologically advanced signals and communications devices in subways, he added.
“In the summer, finally, myself and many transportation advocates and representatives of the construction industry tried to get the governor to tackle this,” he said. After the legislative session ended, “the governor and the MTA agreed on a framework of a plan.”
One item Brennan said he is looking forward to seeing is something called “communication based train control.” It could help the MTA operate more trains per hour. If that happens, riders won’t have to wait as long for a train. “It would decrease headway between trains,” he said.
While the new system will take an estimated 10 to 15 years to install citywide, the MTA plans to start with the F train line. The F line runs through Brennan’s AD.
Money is also needed for infrastructure repairs in New York City, according to Brennan, who said that roads, bridges, sewers and water mains are in woeful shape.
Another topical issue that Brennan is keeping close tabs on: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build 40,000 units of affordable housing in the city.
“There is a desperate need for affordable housing,” Brennan said. But he also pointed out that constructing new housing units might be harder than it sounds. New York is a crowded city with only so much land on which to build, he said. “We have limitations of how much land we’ve got,” he said.
The mayor is seeking zoning changes that would allow developers to construct buildings above the currently allowed heights.
Brennan said that while affordable housing is needed, longtime residents of leafy, brownstone neighborhoods like Park Slope will not like the idea of living next to taller buildings. “It is a tough balance,” he said, referring to the desire for more housing and the need to preserve the character of communities.
It’s an issue that “has to get resolved” if the city is to move forward, Brennan said.
Meanwhile, to help tenants and homeowners understand their rights, Brennan is teaming up with the organization Housing and Family Services of Greater New York to offer informational meetings at his district offices.
The first one, for tenants, will take place on Oct. 15 at the office at 1414 Cortelyou Road from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Tenants will be able to learn about rent stabilization laws, the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption and other programs.
On Oct. 22, Brennan will host a one-on-one sessions for homeowners at his office at 416 Seventh Ave. from noon to 5 p.m. Experts will offer advice on protection against foreclosure.
On the topic of education, Brennan said he supported de Blasio’s effort to get the state Legislature to extend the law giving New York City’s mayor control over the city’s public school system for seven years.
The mayor was thwarted by the Legislature, which extended mayoral control for only a year.
By contrast, Michael Bloomberg, the first mayor to be granted mayoral control when the Legislature did away with the Board of Education in 2002, was granted seven years of control. Bloomberg was also a heavy-duty campaign contributor to Republicans in the state Senate, Brennan noted.
Brennan grew up in Manhattan and moved to Brooklyn in the 1970s. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University. He has an MBA from Baruch College and is a graduate of Brooklyn Law School.
Prior to running for public office, he worked as a lawyer for then-Assemblymember Joe Ferris. “Joe worked on alternative energy sources. He was very concerned with escalating utility rates. He wanted to stop nuclear power,” Brennan recalled.
Brennan was elected in 1984 in what was then called the 51st Assembly District. He is a senior member of the Assembly now. There are only a small handful of lawmakers ahead of him in terms of seniority.
He serves as the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions and is a member of the Codes, Education and Real Property Taxation committees.
Through re-districting, his district has changed quite a bit over the years. It has been renumbered, too. It is now the 44th AD. The territory includes Park Slope, Windsor Terrace and parts of Kensington and Flatbush.
When Brennan first arrived in Albany “the Assembly was fun,” he said.
Stanley Fink was the Assembly Speaker and the freshman Brennan found that Albany had “intense, charismatic political leaders.”
Fink was a populist Liberal. “He retired at the end of my first term,” Brennan recalled.
Mel Miller succeeded Fink as Speaker. “He was my next door neighbor in Brooklyn,” Brennan said, referring to the fact that Miller represented the next district over from his.
But Miller lasted only five years in the job. In 1990, he was indicted on federal corruption charges. He was convicted in 1991.
Saul Weprin came in to be Speaker. Weprin appointed Sheldon Silver to chair the Assembly’s powerful Ways and Means Committee.
When Weprin died in 1994, Silver was appointed the interim Speaker.
Silver was officially elected Speaker in 1994, the same year Republican George Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo for governor. Silver “lasted a long time, 21 years,” Brennan said.
Among other things, “Silver moved the Assembly to the center politically,” according to Brennan, who said the chamber started working on issues like welfare reform and cutting taxes.
“I thought we were cutting taxes too much,” Brennan admitted.
But he Democratic-controlled Assembly didn’t abandon its political roots. “We were still advocating a progressive stance,” Brennan said.
The Assembly worked on bills that created Family Health Plus and Child Health Plus, insurances for low-income families.
Brennan said he still thinks the Assembly is “a fairly Liberal institution” even today.
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