Cornegy uses skills he learned as basketball player in council career
Councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr. can tell you how the ball bounces, both in politics and in life.
The freshman councilmember was the back-up center on the legendary St. John’s University basketball team that went to the Final Four in the 1984-1985 National Collegiate Athletic Association season. “That team was adopted by New York. It was a New York team,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle.
The St. John’s team, which included future NBA star Chris Mullin, went deep into the tournament before losing to Georgetown University in semi-finals. “We lost only four games that whole year. Three of those losses were to Georgetown,” Cornegy said, shaking his head.
The St. John’s players had a reunion about five years ago to celebrate their 25th anniversary. They had wonderful memories to share, according to Cornegy.
In an interview with the Eagle in his district office at 1360 Fulton St. on Sept. 1, Cornegy talked about those days and about how basketball coach Lou Carnesecca “was more of a father figure” than a coach to his players.
The councilmember recalled that at the time, St John’s was a commuter school. There were no dorms on campus. “We all stayed together. We lived off-campus. We shared apartments,” he said, referring to himself and his teammates. It brought them closer.
And even though that amazing run to the Final Four took place three decades ago, Cornegy said he still uses lessons he learned way back when in his work as a lawmaker today.
He called his time at St. John’s the “most important, formative years of my life.”
Cornegy, a Democrat who was elected to represent the 36th District (Bedford-Stuyvesant-northern Crown Heights) in November of 2013, said the first bill he introduced was signed into law in record time in part because of skills he learned in his days as a basketball player.
Preparation, determination and teamwork helped Cornegy push through Avonte’s Law, a bill he introduced to require schools to have alarms that are set to go off if a student leaves the building.
The bill, which was fast-tracked in the Council and quickly signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, is named after Avonte Oqendo, an autistic boy who wandered out of his Queens school and was later found dead.
“Right after that [Avonte tragedy], we had a boy in my district. He left school and wandered home,” Cornegy told the Eagle. That little boy made it home safely, but Cornegy said the child from his district “was part of the inspiration” for the school alarm bill.
“I said this should never happen again,” he recalled telling people.
As a parent himself, he desperately wanted the bill to be passed. Cornegy has six children.
He introduced the bill at a time when the mayor was instituting universal pre-K. That meant more young children flooding into the school system who needed to be protected, he said. “Three and four year olds were coming in,” he added.
Prior to introducing the bill, Cornegy and his staff prepared. They conducted extensive research to come up with answers to every conceivable question that his fellow Council members would ask about the bill, including how it would be implemented and how much it would cost. He estimated the cost at $5.5 million. “You want to be prepared. You want to have done your homework,” he said.
Just as a team prepares for its next game by practicing, a lawmaker wants to be prepared before presenting a piece of legislation.
When it came time to introduce the bill, he incorporated his sense of teamwork. He learned quickly that you have to collaboration on legislation. In the Council, “relationships are tremendously important,” he told the Eagle. “You have to be able to build relationships.”
In talking about his efforts to get his first bill passed, Cornegy used a sports metaphor. “You try to have court vision. You try to see the play before it develops,” he said.
Council members felt “a sense of urgency to get this done,” Cornegy said. “The turnaround on this is record.”
It passed quickly.
For a freshman, Cornegy has displayed a knack for navigating the tricky waters of City Hall politics with grace.
Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito saw his potential and tapped him to serve as chairman of the Committee on Small Business, a role he relishes.
He believes that his role as chairman is to guide legislation, “help small businesses increase capacity” and offer business owners technical assistance to help them grow.
Under his leadership, the committee has held seminars to “help businesses how to access capital.”
The committee also works to “make sure federal and state government laws are being adhered to,” Cornegy said.
He defined a small business as one that has 100 employees or less. Mom-and-pop businesses have five employees or less.
Cornegy fought against excessive fines that small businesses were being hit with and urged city agencies to make the fines more uniform. Before, a fine for the same infraction could run anywhere $200 to $2,000, depending on the whim of the city inspector. Now the fines are uniform.
Cornegy also fought for small businesses to get a six-month delay in implementing the city’s paid sick leave law.
The councilmember described himself as a big proponent of business improvement districts (BIDs) and chambers of commerce and said he has a good relationship with Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
They worked together to create Chamber on the Go, a service in which an information van travels around to different neighborhoods. “I said to him, ‘We have to take this directly to their doorsteps,’” Cornegy said. “This year, we expanded it.” The program is now a citywide initiative by the City Council and is administered by the Department of Small Business Services.
Cornegy said that part of his job is also to “look at trends” and identify emerging industries.
Brooklyn, for example, has seen increasing tourism and an increase in the hospitality industry, he said.
In an example of Cornegy’s outside the box thinking, he recently worked with Uber on a unique project this summer to increase the car service company’s business while at the same time bringing more business to Bedford-Stuyvesant bars and restaurants. “We partnered with Uber,” he said.
Under the program, Uber offered discount rides to patrons going to bars and restaurants in Bed-Stuy. It took place over a weekend earlier this summer.
“It’s tying new technology to brick and mortar businesses,” Cornegy said.
Bringing the two together is important, he said.
New businesses are growing. There are 900 Airbnb places in the Bed-Stuy portion of the Council district, he said.
Cornegy also has an outreach program to tell people about the cultural institutions in his district. Under the program, booklets listing various museums, galleries and performance spaces are printed and distributed.
Helping small businesses helps the city, he said. If business does well, it increases the city’s revenue and decreases unemployment. “I’d like a small business to go from eight workers to 15 workers,” he said. “The economy will not be righted through big businesses.”
Cornegy is also a member of the Civil Service and Labor, Finance, Public Safety, Housing and Health committees on the council.
On public safety, he said that while his community is “up in some degree in violent crime,” he is pleased the law was changed to curb the NYPD’s controversial stop, question and frisk policy.
“It was disproportionate,” he said, adding that a large number of African-Americans and Latinos were stopped for questioning, far more than whites were stopped. In addition, Cornegy said the policy was a failure. “It didn’t serve the purpose. It didn’t yield more weapons,” he said.
What the city needs is “better police-community relations,” he said.
Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were fatally gunned down in their patrol car on December of 2014, were slain in Cornegy’s district. They were part of a special street crimes unit that had seen great success, the councilmember said.
Their deaths were a great tragedy, Cornegy said.
Cornegy’s role as a councilmember is multi-faceted.
He sponsored the bill to co-name the block of Stuyvesant Avenue between Lexington Avenue and Quincy Street, which was the block where director Spike Lee filmed “Do the Right Thing,” after the iconic 1989 movie.
The co-naming ceremony, which took place earlier this summer, was lots of fun, he said. “It was the block party of all block parties,” he said.
Like the Avonte’s Law legislation, the co-naming broke new ground in terms of city law.
It marked the first time New York City co-named a street after a work of art. Normally, the city reverses that honor for people or institutions. “This was the first one named after a work of art of cultural significance,” he said.
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