In Public Service: Richardson relishes role as political upstart
Diana Richardson rocked the political establishment when she won a special election in May to fill the seat in the 43rd Assembly District left vacant by Karim Camara. Richardson, a Democrat, won the election without the support of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, running instead on the Working Families Party ticket.
Camara had left the Assembly to join the Cuomo administration.
Richardson won the special election and has been continuing to rock the political world ever since.
The 43rd Assembly District, which she now represents, includes Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens and East Flatbush.
Richardson was born and raised in Crown Heights. “And I’m still here,” she said, proudly.
Richardson spoke to the Brooklyn Eagle at the Star Liner Cafe and Market on Nostrand Avenue, telling the story of her life and her career in between sips of coffee and bites on a bagel with cream cheese.
She clearly enjoyed her surroundings, giving the cafe owner a big hug when she entered and greeting another store owner who was also in the eatery.
Richardson said she loves talking to the merchants in her district. “I have so much respect for them. To open a business is to show a certain level of commitment to the community,” he told the Eagle.
She doesn’t like to stand on ceremony and often asks her constituents to call her Diana rather than Assemblymember Richardson.
“I’m no different than you,” she said.
Richardson is a daughter of Crown Heights. She attended P.S. 161 and Middle School 88. She went to Edward R. Murrow High School and Medgar Evers College and earned a master’s degree in public administration from Baruch College.
Ned Regan, the former New York state comptroller, was her one of her professors at Baruch College. He encouraged her political aspirations, she said.
Richardson got her start in politics by becoming involved in the student government at Medgar Evers College. She was elected to serve as recording secretary of the student government and then became the treasurer.
She learned a lot, she said. For example, she learned how to work with different personalities and how to read people. “You have to deal with everybody,” she said.
She earned the respect of her fellow students with her honesty and forthrightness. “I’m a very direct person,” she said.
Richardson enjoyed her experience in student government. “It was totally awesome,” she said.
Richardson also became involved in community life in Crown Heights. She was appointed to Community Board 9, where she served on the Education Committee. She was elected treasurer of the board. She is grateful for her years on the community board. It taught her how government works, she said. “The community board is the basic level of government,” she said.
He mother has always served as her inspiration. Her mom, Hyacinth Richardson, was a parent-teacher association leader and led a tenant’s association. “I am her child. The apple didn’t fall far from that tree!” she said with a laugh.
Richardson said she decided to become active in the community because she believed it was the best way to fight for governmental services for local residents. “We have to have a seat at the table,” she said. “The first step is that people have to understand how the government works.”
She landed a job with state Sen. Kevin Parker, serving as a constituent aide. “It was an eye-opening experience,” she recalled. “We were handling 11th-hour emergency cases.”
Richardson said she believes very strongly that the juvenile justice system is in serious need of reform. “We have to become innovative,” she said.
She blasted the Rockefeller Drug Laws for ruining the lives of many young men and women. “We had a school-to-prison mentality,” she said. Young people who serve time for minor drug offenses can’t vote, because they are convicted felons. And they have trouble getting a job, she said.
Richardson decided to run for public office, but she knew she would come under scrutiny. “People put you under a microscope,” she said.
Richardson said the government should be doing more for young people in communities like Crown Heights. “We have no YMCA, no youth clubs here,” she said. “We’re not giving young people the second chances that we should. We need additional resources. The local community has been doing the work,” she said.
Another issue that Richardson is concerned with is housing. “We have a severe housing crisis. We keep coming up with temporary measures. It’s like putting air in a balloon. It will burst,” she said.
Her district contains many of the working poor who live in rent-stabilized housing. “The homeless population is growing,” she said.
New York state controls the rent regulation laws, but Richardson said that needs to change. “We need home rule,” she said. New York City should be in charge, she said.
Richardson was highly critical of preferential rents, a system in which a landlord can offer a tenant a low rent in the beginning and then raise the rent substantially after only a few years. She said many tenants are not fully aware of the provisions of preferential rents and are therefore unaware of the ramifications when they sign the lease. No one explains it to them, she said.
“It is happening here and it is legal,” she said.
She cited statistics from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) that indicated that between 300,000 and 500,000 New Yorkers are living with preferential rents and are in danger of seeing their rents skyrocket.
“We have whole buildings that are being cleared out,” she said.
Preferential rents have been compared to balloon mortgages, which plagued many homeowners during the nation’s financial crisis.
A solution to the city’s housing crunch, according to Richardson, is the establishment of a housing program similar to the state’s Mitchell-Lama law.
“We have to do something. Brooklyn is not going to be Brooklyn,” she said. “Our seniors are the most vulnerable.”
Richardson also called on the cap to be raised before a landlord of a rent-stabilized apartment can charge a market-rate rent.
Richardson said she ran for the Assembly because “I had a fire in my belly.”
“I did not get the support of the County Committee,” she said.
Her successful run reinforced her view that she had a lot to offer and that it was important for her to be herself and not try to fit into a political mold. “I learned you can be yourself. I have the freedom of voice. I feel comfortable with myself,” she said.
She was elected to fill out Camera’s term, which ends in 2016. She plans to run for re-election. “If anyone wants to come after me and challenge me, let them come. I’m here working hard for my constituents. And my constituents know I’m fighting for them,” she said.
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