In Public Service: Weinstein one of Assembly’s longstanding members
Assemblymember Helene Weinstein has an interesting collection of pens in her district office on Nostrand Avenue. But they’re not just any pens. Framed and hanging on a wall, the pens signify her longevity and her clout in the state Legislature.
The pens were used by governors to sign into law bills that Weinstein had sponsored. Each governor, upon signing the bill, would give Weinstein the pen. She had the pens framed, along with the legislation.
Weinstein has more than 100 of these framed pens in her Brooklyn district office and in her office in Albany.
She is one of the senior members of the New York state Legislature, not in terms of age, but in terms of her length of service.
Weinstein, a Democrat, has been in the Assembly for 35 years, having first won election in 1980 and having been re-elected, usually by comfortable margins, every two years since.
Weinstein represents the 41st Assembly District, a seat that includes parts of Sheepshead Bay, Flatlands, Canarsie, Midwood and East Flatbush.
During a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, Weinstein said she feels lucky that her district is heavily Democratic in terms of voter turnout. That isn’t the case for many of her colleagues, she acknowledged. “As soon as they get elected, they have to figure out how to get re-elected,” she said.
She is the chairman of the Assembly’s powerful and influential Judiciary Committee. The committee presides over virtually all legislation affecting the state’s judicial system, including family and domestic relations laws, trusts and estates and civil practices in the courts.
Weinstein has sponsored legislation that has led to major reforms in the state’s jury system. She is also a proponent of ensuring civil legal services for low-income New Yorkers.
New York state has judges sitting on the bench who are elected to their positions as well as judges who are appointed to the bench.
Weinstein said she believes it’s possible to have a fair judicial system with both types of judges. “It should be a good mix of all of it,” she said. As far as judges being appointed, she said there are “great judges that have come out of that process.”
To get a sense of how long Weinstein has been serving the people of her district, consider this: the same year she won her seat, 1980, was also the year Ronald Reagan was elected president of the U.S. The country has had four presidents since Reagan.
Weinstein has worked with several Assembly speakers in her 35 years in Albany. Stanley Fink was the speaker when she first arrived in 1980. Other speakers during her time in Albany have included Mel Miller, Saul Weprin, Sheldon Silver and the current speaker, Carl Heastie.
When she was a student at Canarsie High School in 1969, Weinstein won a New York State Regents Scholarship and Fink sent her a congratulatory letter. She keeps the framed letter in her district office.
She has seen five governors come and go during her 35 year tenure — Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Elliot Spitzer and David Paterson. She is currently working with her sixth, Andrew Cuomo, whom she has known since his father was the governor.
“I really get along with everybody,” she said.
In 1980, five women were elected to the state Legislature. Weinstein was the only lawyer among them. “It gave me an advantage in terms of working on legislation,” she said.
When she first got to the Assembly, she dived right in, working on issues like education and domestic violence.
At the time, some of her colleagues considered the Assembly a part-time job. The state Legislature is in session only from January to June. But Weinstein made it a full-time job from the get-go, and worked at it 12 months a year. “I had a full-time district office,” she said.
A number of her colleagues did not even have district offices at the time.
The two things that drive her are policy issues and constituent services. She works on both sweeping legislation and on local issues. She recently secured $500,000 in state funding for the children’s department at the Flatlands branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Weinstein said she has always strived to pass legislation to help families. “In terms of crafting legislation, you’re always learning,” she said.
Weinstein admitted that she has legislation she has worked on that she believes would be good for the state, “but we haven’t been able to advance it.” Republicans who control the state Senate won’t budge, she said.
She pointed to gun control legislation as an example. “There is an upstate-downstate divide on this issue,” she said.
Weinstein would also like to see malpractice reform. “We can’t get it passed,” she said.
But she continues fighting for legislation she believes in.
“Right now, we’re working on ways to help people who are facing foreclosure. Some people had their homes foreclosed because of faulty paperwork. We have really cleaned up a lot of that,” she said. “Some people just need a little bit of help to stay in their homes.”
It’s an important issue, she said, because home foreclosure affects an entire community, not just the individual homeowner. “You wind up with abandoned homes that are rundown,” she said adding that the empty buildings become havens for drug addicts. “It brings down property values,” she said.
Lenders should be bearing more of the burden of maintaining foreclosed properties, she said.
Weinstein grew up in Canarsie. Her parents, Murray and Zeva, were community activists. Her father was the president of their synagogue and leader of the local civic association. Her mother was a Parent-Teacher Association leader.
Her parents’ civic involvement inspired her. As a young girl, Weinstein would listen in on civic meetings taking place in the family’s living room as her parents and others discussed important issues. “I thought that’s what adults did,” she said, referring to civic activism.
Weinstein attended P.S. 114 and Canarsie High School. She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from American University and earned a law degree from the New England School of Law.
Murray Weinstein was a trial attorney.
In 1978 he won the Assembly seat that is now held by his daughter. He served for two years.
Helene Weinstein did volunteer work in her father’s Assembly office for the two years he was in office. She worked in both the Brooklyn district office and in the office in the state Capitol in Albany. “I saw that I enjoyed it,” she said. “It clearly was in my blood.”
Weinstein prides herself on taking care of constituent needs and paying attention to issues in the district.
Her district office is unique, she said, because it offers a microcosm of New York City. She has staff members who are fluent in Russian, Creole, Cantonese and Yiddish.
Her goal is to make sure her constituents get the services they need without facing a language barrier, she said.
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