Red Hook

In Public Service: How Ortiz learned English and governing

November 6, 2015 Paula Katinas
Felix Ortiz is the assistant speaker of the New York State Assembly. Photo courtesy of Assemblymember Ortiz’s office

Felix Ortiz left Puerto Rico, where he had lived all of his life, and came to the U.S. mainland in 1980. He was the first person in his family to come to the mainland. He arrived in New York City not speaking one work of English. “I learned English on the street,” he recalled.

Ortiz came here to attend college. It was his intention to get his degree and then return to Puerto Rico to establish a career.

His constituents are probably glad he stayed here.

Now in his 11th term in the New York State Assembly, Ortiz is currently the assistant speaker of the Assembly, working closely with Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).

Ortiz represents the 51st Assembly District (AD), a district that takes in most of Sunset Park and Red Hook and includes portions of Bay Ridge.

Shortly after his arrival in New York 35 years ago, Ortiz settled in Sunset Park and got a job as a teller in Banco Popular. “You had to pay attention to your [cash] box, right down to the penny,” he recalled during an interview with the Brooklyn Eagle in his Sunset Park district office.

Working as a bank teller had its dangers. He was robbed at gunpoint three times. And those were the days when banks did not have bullet-proof glass partitions at the tellers’ windows.

After the third gunpoint robbery, Ortiz requested, and got, permission to work at Banco Popular’s corporate headquarters.

Ortiz earned a degree in Business Administration from Boricua College and went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration from New York University. He also took several finance and economics courses, he said.

In 1982, Ortiz got a job with the Department of City Planning (DCP). “I had a wonderful boss who encouraged me,” he recalled.

He went to work at the city’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), during the Koch administration, where his job consisted of reviewing city agencies and making suggestions on where they could be more efficient. He also worked on the capital and expense budgets.

“OMB was a wonderful experience and DCP was a good training ground,” he said.

For one thing, it gave him a chance to interact with workers in other city agencies and establish personal relationships that continue to this day. “When something has to get done for your community and you can pick up a phone and call someone on the phone and get it done, it’s a good feeling,” he said

“In politics, 99 percent is personal relationships,” Ortiz added.

In his spare time, Ortiz was a volunteer sports coach at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, working with Little League baseball players and other young athletes. With his sister Nancy Ortiz, he created a program that assisted homeless people.

“We come from a family of giving, not receiving,” he said.

Ortiz was a member of Community Board 7, where he served as chairman of the Public Safety Committee. He was concerned about the presence of street gangs in Sunset Park and wanted to give young people more opportunities, he said.

In 1989, New York City got rid of the Board of Estimate and expanded the City Council from 36 members to 51.

The Board of Estimate, established by the City Charter in 1898, was responsible for all budget and land use decisions.

The elimination of the Board of Estimate came about as the result of a lawsuit charging that the board, composed of the mayor, City Council president, comptroller and the five borough presidents, violated the rights of New Yorkers. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was a violation of voters’ rights because residents of the city’s most populous borough, Brooklyn, had no more representation that the least populous borough, Staten Island.

Ortiz was around to assist with the complicated transition of city governement.

He decided to run for public office in 1994, taking on incumbent Assemblymember Javier Nieves in the Democratic Primary in the 51st AD. “I ran a grass roots campaign from the ground up,” he said.

Beatrice DiSapio, a leader of Community Board 7 and a member of Community School Board 15, was an early supporter. DiSapio was known for her political savvy. “She always gave me great advice,” he said.

Ortiz defeated Nieves in the Democratic Primary in 1994 by 141 votes and went on to win the general election that November.

Ortiz is an active member of the Black, Puerto Rican, Latino and Asian Legislative Caucus.

Over the past two decades, Ortiz has established a reputation as an inventive forward-thinking lawmaker.

In 1996, he introduced a bill to prohibit drivers from using handheld cell phones while behind the wheel. “People told me I was crazy; that it would never happen,” he recalled. “My staff thought I was nuts. But when we did the research, we found that there was nothing on the books.”

He remained convinced that cell phones were a major distraction to drivers and caused a danger on the roadways.

His cell phone ban bill was inspired by a car accident he witnessed. “A driver crashed his car and it turned out that he was talking on a cell phone. A cop who was there said, ‘It’s becoming a distraction to drivers.’ I just felt I had to do something,” he said.

Ortiz said he got a great deal of push back from the cell phone industry.

A near-tragedy helped turn the tide, he said. A Long Island man whose wife and daughter were involved in a car accident in which the driver of the other vehicle was speaking on a cell phone at the time joined Ortiz’s effort.

“And then I started hearing from other people who had lost people in accidents,” Ortiz said.

Oprah Winfrey also announced her support for a handheld cell phone ban for drivers.

The state Legislature passed the bill and then-Gov. George Pataki signed it into law in 2001.

Three years later, the law was amended to add text messaging.

Ortiz was also at the forefront of a nutrition movement to mandate fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. “I think people should make informed choices when they go out to eat,” he said.

His idea, which was mocked at the time, eventually became law in New York City during the Bloomberg administration.

Ortiz is also concerned about childhood obesity. He has visited dozens of school in his district and has noticed that many of the students are overweight and obese.

“When you see a 14-year-old boy and his waist is 44 inches, it makes you think,” he said.

In 2008, Ortiz sponsored the Childhood Obesity Prevention Act, a bill that would have required body mass index (BMI) screenings in public schools, mandatory physical education classes in elementary schools and a diabetes risk analysis in public schools.

The most controversial part of the legislation called for a so called “fat tax” on soft drinks.

Ortiz said he will continue to push for “common sense” legislation. “I’m a very pushy person,” he told the Eagle.