In Public Service: Montgomery no longer an outsider
Recalling the first time she walked into the New York State Senate chamber in Albany as a newly elected senator in January of 1985, Velmanette Montgomery said she felt like an outsider.
“I remember walking in the door and feeling like I didn’t belong,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle over lunch at La Flor Del Paraiso Restaurant on Atlantic Avenue near her district office.
No one could ever say today that Montgomery doesn’t belong in state government. A seasoned legislator, she has served in the state Senate for 30 years and has found a way to navigate the tricky role of being a Democrat in a Republican-dominated Legislature.
She is a member of several high-profile committees in the Senate, including Crime Victims, Crime and Correction, Rules, Finance, Children and Family Services, Education and Health.
Montgomery represents the 25th Senate District, a district that takes in all or part of several neighborhoods in north and central Brooklyn, including Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Red Hook, Sunset Park and Park Slope. “It is the most gentrified area of the city,” she said.
Her Brooklyn district office is located at 30 Third Ave.
Montgomery doesn’t let being in the minority party in the Senate daunt her.
The most rewarding part of her job, she said, “is that you really do have a platform to use to share information and ideas and to create movement around issues you care about.”
Her goal, she said, “is to get a conversation started.”
Montgomery, who has seen a lot of changes at the top in the Senate, including the indictment and resignation of state Sen. Dean Skelos as majority leader, said she has high hopes for new Majority Leader John Flanagan. “He has shown a willingness to work with Democrats,” she said.
She has championed numerous pieces of legislation during her three decades in Albany, including a bill to allow a person to obtain a barber’s license from New York state even if they have served time in prison on a felony conviction.
The ban that prevented ex-cons from obtaining a barber’s license was based on an old law from the 19th century, she said. “It was an outdated law. We needed to make a change. The law was preventing many people who have paid their debt to society from starting over, getting a job and contributing to society,” Montgomery said.
Criminal justice reform is a big issue for Montgomery. She visited a prison in upstate New York earlier this year and said she learned a lot from the experience.
Many of the inmates were there because of non-violent, low-level drug convictions. “Drugs — it’s a problem and we have to figure it out,” she said.
Another area where Montgomery would like to see change is how residents of New York state view each other.
The state needs to be more unified, according to Montgomery, who said upstate versus downstate divisions are old hat. “We are one state. We need to rethink the negative competition of upstate versus downstate. Our Senate Democratic Conference is looking at the state as a whole to see how we can all work together,” she said.
One way that the gap between upstate and downstate is being bridged is through Greenmarkets in New York City, according to Montgomery, who is a member of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee.
“Greenmarket activities bring upstate farmers here,” Montgomery said, adding that agriculture is a major part of the state’s economy.
New York is the country’s largest supplier of maple syrup, for example, she said.
Montgomery is not one to back away from a challenge.
She is originally from Texas. “Carlos Menchaca and I are the only elected officials in New York City who come from Texas,” she said. Menchaca, a City Councilmember who represents Sunset Park and Red Hook, grew up in El Paso.
“When you come to New York you find that it’s very different,” she said.
New York and its diversity is a great teacher, she said. “It’s important for us to know and understand each other from a unique perspective,” she said, adding that it’s also important not to stereotype people.
Montgomery holds a master’s degree in education from New York University and has an honorary degree from St. Joseph’s College.
Before entering politics, she was a teacher and directed a day care center. She also helped found the Day Care Forum of New York City.
She ran for, and won, a seat on Community School Board 13. She was elected by her peers to serve as president of the school board.
Frustrated by the manner in which the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee and then-county Chairman Meade Esposito were running politics in the borough in the early 1980s, Montgomery helped to lead a political reform movement in central Brooklyn.
“The county was like a machine,” she said. “We wanted to see more people involved in the political process.”
It wasn’t easy going up against the political machine, but Montgomery and her allies taught themselves about the petitioning process to get candidates on the ballot and learned about the other types of groundwork that had to be done to get candidates elected.
“We learned a lot. We had to do everything ourselves. There was no Internet then. You had to go out and get the information you needed. The information wasn’t at your fingertips,” Montgomery said.
To attract residents to their meetings, the reformers would post fliers in several neighborhoods.
Montgomery ran for the state Senate in 1984 in what was then the 22nd Senate Distinct and won. She ran for public office, she said, to gain a seat at the table when important decisions are made. “In order to affect policy, I had to have a position,” she recalled.
She described her campaign as “very grass roots.” When she won, she was pleased. She and her supporters had worked hard for that victory, she said.
Through redistricting, the district number was eventually changed to 25.
Looking forward to the 2016 legislative session, Montgomery said she wants to continue working on juvenile justice reform and look for alternatives to courts for young offenders.
Montgomery said she is inspired by the fact that more and more women are starting to run for public office these days.
She pointed to the victories of Assemblymembers Diana Richardson (D-Crown Heights) and Latrice Walker (D-Brownsville) as examples of new leadership entering the political arena.
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